Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, with nine of their 11 children. Source: "The Original Films of Frank B. Gilbreth," Prelinger Archives.

Lessons From Lillian Gilbreth, Ultimate Working Mom: Echoes

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By Nancy Kriplen

In the summer of 1924, when her husband died, Lillian M. Gilbreth was left not only with their management-consulting business to run, but 11 children -- ranging in age from 2 to 18 -- to raise on her own.

Gilbreth is the mother in that romp of a book (and later movie), "Cheaper by the Dozen." But the 1948 book, written by two of her children, though entertaining and eternally popular, trivialized the life of a complicated and accomplished woman.

Gilbreth was in fact the ur-working mom. She taught engineering, earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, helped develop radical new approaches to factory management, lectured around the world and advised American presidents.

If the modern working mom has the energy and the time -- perhaps after a challenging day in the law office, teaching kindergarten or running a drill press, and before starting dinner or helping the kids with homework -- she might want to ponder a fascinating biography of Gilbreth, by Jane Lancaster, called "Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth -- A Life Beyond 'Cheaper by the Dozen.'"

"Lillian's ability to combine a remarkable public and professional life with the raising of eleven children made her an icon for those who wanted to show that middle-class mothers could work without its adversely affecting their families," writes Lancaster. And Gilbreth "faced, and to some extent solved, one of the central dilemmas of modern American women, namely how to combine family and work."

Gilbreth and her husband, Frank, were pioneer consultants in the field of time and motion studies, filming workers in factories and shops to research the most efficient way for the world's work to be done. Eventually, this study evolved into the full-blown academic discipline of industrial engineering. What Lillian called Fatigue Elimination would later become part of ergonomics. Among her other contributions was the addition of psychology to this new "scientific management," plus a conviction that worker comfort was an important part of productivity.

Not surprisingly, the Gilbreths saw their spectacularly large family as another laboratory in which to test their professional tools. It surely helped that Lillian herself was the eldest of nine children, and that both families were able to afford servants -- an Irish baby nurse to help with the newest nursery inhabitant, a cook or housekeeper to worry about what's for dinner. And members of the extended family often lent a hand.

Nevertheless, 11 children are 11 children. (One child had died of diphtheria in 1912.) The Gilbreths encouraged both independence in their kids and group responsibility. They established a weekly "family council" to discuss work schedules. Progress charts and other scientific-management techniques were used to monitor chores such as teeth-brushing and dusting. Older children supervised the younger ones. There was a phonograph in the bathroom so that the children could listen to foreign-language records while taking their morning baths.

Still, despite the charts and detailed schedules, "Lillian and Frank somehow injected an element of fun into the proceedings," writes Lancaster. The Gilbreth's summer cottage on Nantucket was whimsically called "the Shoe."

Lillian spent 13 years on the engineering faculty of Purdue University, teaching students about motion-mindedness, management efficiency and micromotion notation, which used a system of symbols she invented called THERBLIGS (roughly Gilbreth spelled backward) to represent 17 specific elements of motion. She also started consulting on efficiency in the home.

Years later, when I was a Purdue student, faint traces of her presence remained. My history professor and Gilbreth had been friends, and once, hosting a gathering for students in her home, she proudly showed us the efficient kitchen Gilbreth had helped her design. Mainly I remember counter tops higher than normal (the professor was tall) and much swinging of legs to close low cabinet doors, freeing hands for other tasks.

Much later, I stumbled across a copy of a book Gilbreth had co-written called "Management in the Home," the dust jacket of which promised "Happier Living Through Saving Time and Energy."

Who wouldn't want that? As a bride, eager to run my household with what I hoped (vainly) would be relaxed efficiency, I struggled with a tangle of sheets to learn how to change a bed without the horrid inefficiency of walking from side to side. I finally gave up on the bed and the book, with its process charts for making coffee and meatloaf. (A sign of those times: Women in the book's illustrations wore what were quaintly called "house dresses," rather than today's housework uniform of jeans or sweat pants.)

Lancaster, however, discovered in "Management in the Home" what I had overlooked: gentle philosophical advice, certainly of use to women today. "The homemaker who holds a job has to be especially careful not to cling too hard to a set of standards that dates back to the time when the lady of the house was always at home, and moreover had servants to help her," Gilbreth wrote.

A bit later in the chapter, she added: "Would you be embarrassed if a neighbor came in and found your house topsy-turvy, dishes in the sink, beds unmade, and you in bathrobe and slippers at eleven in the morning? If you're meeting a deadline and haven't a second to spare, you won't worry about it."

I may have to re-read this book.

(Nancy Kriplen is the author, most recently, of "The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur -- Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary." The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the author of this post: Nancy Kriplen at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at


-0- Jan/26/2012 15:57 GMT