Motion study and the Gilbreth family: Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes


Raising twelve1 children is a monumental task that would daunt anyone short of the Quiverfull movement these days, but Frank and Lillian Gilbreth managed it with a judicious application of their business techniques, motion study to increase manufacturing and construction efficiency. Just a word of warning before I go farther with the review: these books have nothing whatsoever to do with the Steve Martin movie of the same name; the 1950 Myrna Loy movie is more closely based on the books, but even then Hollywood took considerable liberties with the books.

Both books are episodic memoirs of growing up in a large family. Although both are humorous, the first, Cheaper by the Dozen, is lighter in tone and concentrates more on the children’s perspective of the household and their parents than the later Belles on Their Toes. It covers the time period approximately between the parents’ marriage in 1904 (with a bit of backstory) up to the father’s death from a heart attack in 1924. Fortunately, Frank Sr. was successful enough to support a family this large quite comfortably; aside from a house large enough to hold so many without cramping (or not much anyway), the family had a cook and handyman for many years. With some help from Lillian, Frank Sr. specialized in motion study from the perspective of simplifying (and therefore speeding up) the required steps for workers to perform certain tasks; his business ranged from industrial to clerical and medical settings. In part to streamline the myriad things needed to raise a family of that size, the children were dragooned into testing a number of their father’s theories, from purely personal procedures, such as taking a bath, to more professional tasks which were later encompassed in his outside work, such as learning speed touch typing.

Belles on their Toes is rather more somber, and also more detailed. The authors were older when the events they’re describing in the book took place, and therefore better able to describe what they personally experienced as part of the family rather than relying on stories told them by older family members. Also, given that the book covers the years after their father’s death, when the newly widowed Lillian was struggling to support her family financially such that they could remain together, the material covered is naturally of a more seriously adult nature. Not surprisingly, Lillian had a considerable struggle to not only finish rearing all those kids to adulthood but support them in a time when women Did. Not. Work. Outside. The. Home…and they certainly didn’t do it in engineering.

Cheaper by the Dozen is the better known of the two books about the Gilbreth family as a whole; Belles on their Toes, though in some ways a more truthful and better written book, seems almost an afterthought to follow up on the question “What happened to the family after the father died so suddenly?” Belles on their Toes, however, is interesting from the perspective of women entering the workforce in traditionally male fields; now, 85 years after the events took place, it seems no more than logical that Lillian would continue her husband’s work–she was familiar with his theories and techniques, having helped him during his lifetime, and her education in psychology, at least in part, helped her understand how people approached work procedures. At the time? Reaction ranged from astounded to disbelieving at best, and while she did keep the family together, the first few years after Frank Sr’s death were financially shaky. Once she established herself, however, she did become at least reasonably successful from a professional standpoint. Belles on their Toes is also told from the children’s perspective, though with more sympathy to their mother from a human standpoint; there are several instances where Lillian speaks at the children’s schools and uses family incidents as examples in her lectures, not realizing how much the children would be hassled afterward.

While the Gilbreths were not unique in studying industrial processes in the early twentieth century, they concentrated on increasing manufacturing efficiency by reducing wasted motion and repetitive actions rather than simply shortening the time needed for each task. This not only sped up the process by shortening the time needed for any individual task, but reduced the physical strain on the workers–improving the workers’ jobs rather than merely the owners’ profits, if you will. There was considerable contention between the proponents of various schools of thought, but as they don’t form a significant part of these two books, I’ll leave that for others more knowledgeable to discuss. For those interested in what Lillian Moller Gilbreth did, not only did she leave behind her writings, but Frank Jr wrote a more straightforward biography of the family, concentrating on his mother, titled Time Out for Love.

Just to clarify a plot point that a number of readers have noticed: while Frank and Lillian Gilbreth did have twelve children, the second born, Mary, died of diphtheria in 1912 when she was six. It isn’t until the authors wrote Belles on their Toes that they clarified what had happened; Mary’s birth is mentioned in Cheaper by the Dozen, but her absence was glossed over so fast that most readers never caught it, as she was never mentioned in the remainder of the book. I can only guess that even decades after her death, Mary’s loss pained the family sufficiently that they felt they couldn’t mention it in the first book at all, and only briefly in the second. Whether Frank and Lillian might have chosen ultimately to have a thirteenth child is unknown; Frank senior died when the youngest child, Jane was so young that there might not have been time even if they had felt comfortable “replacing” the child they lost.

Overall, I’d describe them today as a period piece, on a par with Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical books. The writing style’s a bit dated today, and some of the attitudes towards cultural groups definitely no longer acceptable–Tom the Irish handyman and Lilian’s parents’ Chinese cook both come across as more than slightly stereotyped2, though the children clearly love both of them. Overall, I’d suggest that this shouldn’t be read as a serious analysis of childrearing techniques of the Oughts, Teens and Twenties, but rather a prolonged family in-joke, told well enough for publication. Even the basic conceit of the book, twelve children, is somewhat misleading. While Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had twelve children, there was no point at which they had twelve living children, and even had Mary survived, the “cheaper by the dozen” joke would only have held true for the last couple of years of Frank Sr’s life. Alas.

1technically only eleven, but let’s work with the authors’ conceit here
2understatement

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