Lillian Gilbreth hated the best-selling book written about her in 1948 because it depicted her as a sweet, stay-at-home mom who deferred to her husband.
Cheaper By the Dozen, written by two of her 12 children, described how she and her husband used time-and-motion principles to manage their large household. They figured out the most efficient way to take a bath – and had the children listen to language lessons on the Victrola while doing so. They even incorporated recordkeeping into the daily routine, requiring the children to initial process charts showing they had bathed, brushed their teeth, made their beds and combed their hair.
What Cheaper By the Dozen failed to show was that family life was just an extension of Lillian Gilbreth’s professional life. She and her husband ran an engineering firm, and together wrote hundreds of articles, published eight books, ran courses on industrial management and wrote many, many professional papers. Lillian Gilbreth was actually one of the most influential women of her age.
When her husband Frank died of a heart attack at the age of 42, Lillian Gilbreth turned her attention to the domestic space, where she sought to reduce the drudgery of household chores. Her goal was to help other working mothers find more time for leisure and creativity. She called those moments ‘happiness minutes.’
Lillian Moller Gilbreth was born on May 24, 1878 in Oakland Calif., the second of 11 children. Both her father, William Moller, a well-to-do merchant, and her wealthy mother Annie Delger, were of German descent.
Lillian Gilbreth was well-educated for her time, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1900 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She was the college’s first female commencement speaker. She started on her master’s degree in English at Columbia University, but fell sick and returned to California. In 1902 at the University of California she finished her master’s degree in English, but by then her interest was turning to psychology.
In 1903, she dropped out of graduate school and embarked on a tour of Europe with friends. They stopped in Boston, where she met a charismatic building contractor named Frank Gilbreth. Sixteen months later they were married at her parents’ home in Oakland.
Lillian gave birth about every 15 months, in between moves from California to New York to Providence to New Jersey, with summers on Nantucket. Together Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had 13 children; one daughter was stillborn and another died of diphtheria at the age of five.
Frank, a poor student, had never gone to college and started his career as a bricklayer’s apprentice. He became fixated on the single most efficient way to lay bricks. He learned about other aspects of building and contracting as well, taking night school courses on mechanical drawing.
Frank rose rapidly at a large construction firm, patented several inventions and then quit to start his own company. When he married Lillian, they founded a management consulting firm that studied employees’ work habits and recommended ways to make their jobs easier and more efficient. His specialty was time-and-motion management, while hers was educational psychology.
In 1912 their consulting firm won a contract to introduce scientific management to the New England Butt Co., a hinge maker, in Providence, R.I.
There, Lillian Gilbreth was able to earn her doctorate in psychology from Brown, and she and Frank turned their home near the university into a laboratory for motion study.
The Gilbreths took photos of their children doing dishes to figure out how to do it faster. They spent a vacation on Nantucket finding the best way to pack soap for Lever Brothers. The children learned Morse code after Frank painted the symbols on their walls and ceilings. He left funny messages in code for them to decipher.
In their work, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth pioneered ways to incorporate psychology in industrial planning. They introduced such concepts as work breaks, improved lighting, suggestion boxes and free books. They did research into fatigue management, the forerunner to ergonomics.
In 1919, the Gilbreths moved to Montclair, N.J. Frank died five years later of a heart attack. She outlived him – and succeeded on her own – for 48 years.
On Her Own
Lillian Gilbreth continued the consulting firm, but turned her attention to housework and home management. She thought that gave her the best chance of success on her own. She did marketing and management research for Johnson & Johnson and Macy’s. And she consulted with Katharine Gibbs and helped IBM develop an exhibit for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
She is credited with developing the modern kitchen, conceiving the ‘work triangle.’ She also invented the foot pedal trash can, refrigerator door shelves and wall light switches.
Lillian Gilbreth had a long friendship with Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou. She campaigned for Herbert Hoover and headed the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment in 1930. At Lou Hoover’s request, she became a consultant and director to the Girl Scouts. She also did work for the federal government through the Truman Administration.
On top of all that, Lillian Gilbreth was a visiting professor at Purdue and the University of Wisconsin. She lectured at many other colleges. At the age of 86 she became resident lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lillian Gilbreth retired in 1968, just before turning 90. She died Jan. 2, 1972, in Phoenix, Ariz.
Cheaper By The Dozen, still in print, made the best-seller list. It was also made into a film, a stage play and a musical.
You can still see the New England Butt Company building at 304 Pearl St., where the Gilbreths pioneered the first process flow charts and micromotion studies. At Brown University, Lillian obtained her PhD in Applied Management. The family lived a half block from Brown, first at 71, then at 77 Brown Street. The Gilbreths’ Nantucket cottage, which had two buglights on the property, was on the extension of Hulbert Avenue behind the Jetties Beach tennis courts. This story was updated in 2023.