Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth–A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Jane Lancaster


As a fan of the Gilbreth children’s two books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes, it was fascinating to come back as an adult and read Making Time, a comparatively dispassionate scholarly biography of the mother, Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

Lillian was born to wealthy parents residing in Oakland. Raised a proper young woman by the standards of the time, nevertheless she not only went to college but insisted on getting a master’s degree in literature despite her father’s wishes to the contrary. After receiving her master’s, she went on a trip to Boston where she met the man who became her future husband, Frank Gilbreth. A bricklayer without post-college education (at least at that point), Gilbreth had nevertheless already taught himself a great deal about studying how tasks were carried out in order to increase efficiency and therefore speeding up the process considerably. He and Lillian worked together as a business partnership, unofficially; he did most of the field work, while her literary and psychology background allowed her to provide not only editing but diplomacy. Together, they made a start of raising twelve children1–she more than he, not surprisingly, but Frank did participate when he was home.

During their twenty year marriage, the two produced a great deal of motion study which is still in use today, though now hidden by nearly a century of technological and industrial changes. In the Oughts and Teens, industrialization was beginning to supersede farming as the primary driving force of the United States’ and European economy, though it was still new enough that industrialists weren’t quite sure how to streamline the process to improve their profits; workers’ safety was a distant second, though the Gilbreths recognized that increasing the line workers’ ability to work without repetitive strain was the ticket to increasing productivity…and therefore profit.

After Frank’s sudden though not entirely unexpected death in June of 1924, Lillian carried on with her husband’s work for another 40 years, until her retirement in her 80s in the mid-60s. As a person of the “fair sex”, she specialized in things presumed to be of concern to women at the time2, such as kitchen layout and shop clerks’ job duties, rather than factory lines. Hopefully, modern militant feminists will keep a few things in mind before picketing motion study facilities. This is what was available to her, as a woman in the ’20s and ’30s, a time when even widows attempting to support a family by working were frowned upon by proper society; she preferred to work and to keep her family together, rather than split up her children amongst family and friends who’d offered their help. Her work in “women’s sphere” proved as useful as her husband’s in what was then exclusively a male domain, though many of the improvements she implemented have been largely superseded, such as the pneumatic capsule tubes department stores used to transport money from one part of the facility to another. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Lillian herself didn’t consider the improvement of kitchen layout efficiency to be strictly of benefit to women, as she firmly believed that men should share the household work, just as women might expect to go out and work.

Having read a reasonably factual biography written by an outsider, I have to admit Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes gave a less accurate description of the parents than I realized, but I don’t think the children intended to be deliberately misleading at least in the large picture. Their intent was to write a personal memoir describing growing up in such a large family at a specific time in history, as children of a (kindly described) blustering swaggering though loving showman of a father and a mother with Victorian ideals of motherhood and ladyship, who’d been dragged unwillingly into the Edwardian period.

Perhaps the most important thing Frank Jr. and Ernestine glossed over was the degree to which Lillian and Frank Gilbreth worked together, though as they’re writing from their childhood perspective, this is understandable. They’re writing of their parents in the context of family life more than a business analysis of their parents’ motion study theories. Even reading between the lines of their books, however, it’s quite clear that Lillian was as equal a partner in her husband’s business as it was possible for a woman (and one without engineering training at that) to be at that time. If it were otherwise, she could not have undertaken Frank’s speaking tour after his sudden death in 1924. The world of engineers and engineering, even more male-dominated then than now, would not have accepted the wife of the engaged speaker unless she were perceived as being part of the business. Another aspect to the reality was just how much help Lillian had managing the household even while Frank was still alive, specifically in regards the various family members who helped out.

Another aspect of Lancaster’s biography I appreciated (and was bemused by) was just how entangled Frank and Lillian’s families were with their own respective family members, though I suspect that this may simply be typical of the time in a way that seems peculiar to a modern reader. Frank Bunker’s mother lived with Frank and Lillian until her own death shortly before Frank’s, while Lillian’s parents left their house in trust for their children unmarried at the time of their own death. Keep in mind that women’s financial and social independence wouldn’t come for another 100 years–neither decision is all that surprising. In fairness to Lillian, combining what was effectively a full time job, even prior to her husband’s death, with even one or two small children is exhausting. Managing with that many children and that much time away from home would have been all but impossible without adult assistance, no matter how well organized the household; I can see appreciating the presence of built-in childcare.

An aspect to Making Time that struck me as an off-key note to what’s an otherwise interesting biography: Lancaster seemed bent on casting Frank Sr. in a worse light than he perhaps deserved. While even the children’s loving perspective casts him as more than slightly domineering, they clearly adored him every scrap as much as they did their mother, and made it clear that he participated just as much in their rearing as their mother, allowing for his trips away from home. I’d have liked more analysis of how he compared to other self employed husbands of the time, rather than simply how put upon Lillian was.

Overall, though, it’s a fascinating biography of a pioneering woman; I’m not sure if Lillian would have described herself as a “feminist” as that carried connotations of screechy picketing bluestocking to her, but that’s what I’d call her. Eighty years ago, worming her way into the man’s field of engineering was an impressive feat, and she did it with comparatively little shrewishness. In short, Lillian Gilbreth was a fascinating woman.

1one died in childhood, of diphtheria, and a thirteenth was stillborn; neither child was spoken of subsequently
2ruefully, this is still the case. Count genders of store clerks.

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