Industrial engineering pioneers and Cheaper by the Dozen parents Frank and Lillian Gilbreth often used their home as a laboratory for experimentation. Lillian evolved in her own right as an inventor, author, industrial engineer and psychologist. Hear about her motivations, networks, and places of—and for—invention, from biographer Jane Lancaster.
A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Hosted by Matt Ringelstetter. Written by Matt Ringelstetter and Amanda Murray. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Jane Lancaster was originally interviewed on February 23, 2010, by Amanda Murray. Podcast released Monday, March 22. Music is “Function!” by junior85, from the Free Music Archive.
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Matt Ringelstetter: You may have heard about Lillian Gilbreth and her large, eccentric family from the book or movie version of Cheaper by the Dozen, but as with any story there is much more to it. From the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, this is Inventive Voices. Lillian lived from 1878 until 1972. Together with her husband Frank, and long after his death in 1924, she worked as an inventor, author, and industrial psychologist, all while raising twelve children. Many of her experiments involved her own children and used the home as a laboratory, turning the Gilbreth family unit into a miniature hot spot of invention. Lillian worked to improve kitchen designs and patented many appliances, including an electric food mixer and a trash can with a foot-pedal lid opener. Her innovations increased efficiency in all kinds of workplaces and for all kinds of workers. In this podcast, the Lemelson Center’s Amanda Murray talks with historian Jane Lancaster, whose biography of Lillian Gilbreth is called Making Time. Let us find out about Lillian Gilbreth’s places of invention and ask what motivated her work.
Amanda Murray: Jane, thank you for being on the show.
Jane Lancaster: It is a pleasure.
Amanda: You say in your biography that Lillian influenced the way we work, the way we arrange our houses, and our attitude toward time. What are some of today’s reflections of her innovations? What among today’s management techniques, for example, can be traced back to some of Lillian’s work?
Jane: Well, a lot of the way that offices are organized comes out of her work. The way that equipment is placed in a certain order so that you can get to things easily. The way lighting is placed so that people get the best form of illumination for what they are doing. The way that chairs work. Much of her work is what is now called “ergonomics,” which is not a word that existed, in her early days anyway. They were very keen, she and her husband, on finding comfortable chairs and allowing people to sit down at their work.
Amanda: So, as you say, Lillian was not the norm in her time, and these innovations, things like ergonomics, were not common parlance. How did Lillian fit into some of her era’s norms for women and how did she contradict them?
Jane: Well, she was born in 1878, which is you know the late 19th century. She is growing up in the 1880s and 1890s in California. She was part of a wealthy family. Her parents didn’t see any need for their daughters at all—no, not their daughters. They saw a need for their sons to have education, but their daughters were going to be married and run houses and be “accomplished.” But, she was different in that she sort of insisted, managed, to persuade her father that she was going to go to college. The University of California. The only campus in those days was Berkeley, and that was just down the road from where they lived in Oakland. So, she was highly educated and as soon as she had finished her first degree, she said and did get as far away from Oakland as she possibly could and went to university to do graduate work in New York.
So, this is not what well-brought-up young ladies were doing in 1900 from the sort of family background she came from. They were much more domestic and homebodies than she chose to be. There were a whole set of these 19th-century assumptions about female behavior that she didn’t quite fit into, because she was ambitious, because she felt a bit smothered, I think, by the domesticity of her family. She was anxious to be out of there and make her way in the world. She was the commencement speaker—the first female to be a commencement speaker at Berkeley—in 1900, and she took as part of her theme the idea of the “strenuous life,” which was what Theodore Roosevelt was talking about at that time.
Jane: This is what she seems to have wanted to do for her whole ninety-something years is to lead a strenuous life. And, so, having twelve, strenuous—she did regard them and describe them as “strenuous” from time to time; I think particularly when she got rather tired with them. She would sometimes just sort of just take herself off into a room and be quiet on her own and because she had such a big family, they were all delegated to look after each other. So, number one looked after number seven, and number two looked after number eight, and so on. Only the youngest baby was her responsibility at any one time.
Amanda: I would say she certainly succeeded at having a strenuous life, as you say she wanted for herself.
Amanda: She was an engineer. She was a management consultant. She was a professor. She was a government advisor. She mingled with all kinds of important people and earned all these accolades. So she really is larger than life. And in terms of her career and her family and striking a balance, she was a role model to a lot of women. Were there others that criticized her for doing so much?
Jane: Some did, because so much of the time she was doing this there was—so much of the 20th century—there was the idea that men should earn the family wage and it should be enough to keep wife, children, and household going. And women who were working would be, according to this model, implicitly criticizing their husbands’ wage-earning abilities. So, there was that implicit criticizing. And, the other part of it, it was more criticism of Frank, I think, a lot of the time, that she was pregnant so much; a lot of people did not think that was really a good idea.
Amanda: And they had a really unconventional marriage, as we have touched upon already. You say [in Making Time] that “they invented their own style of partnership.” How would you characterize their marriage and their partnership?
Jane: Well, the more that I think about that, I am not sure they invented it. I think they were looking backwards in a sense. Because before the Industrial Revolution, family businesses were run often by men and women from the home, and women were well-trained to carry on whatever the family business was if the husband died or was incapacitated. And so the idea—what happened during the Industrial Revolution is men started going out to work and so women would be the household managers and men would be the breadwinners. They [the Gilbreths] were part of this professional middle-class and so some of the women of their contemporaries were working, but in most—not most, but in a number of cases—they were just doing different things from their husbands. Their idea was that they should be a partnership that worked together, home-based, which they were for much of the time. Seeing the whole family enterprise—the business, the learning, and the child-rearing—as all part of one whole enterprise.
Amanda: The Gilbreths treated their home as a laboratory for experiments that in some cases may not have been condoned or feasible elsewhere. They went so far as to enlist their own children as research assistants and sometimes test subjects. Can you describe some of their experiments that involved the children in those capacities? And how did they justify including the children as much as they did?
Jane: Well, let’s do the second part of that answer first. They included the children as much as they did because of what they described as their “family system.” And this family system was based on John Dewey’s ideas about education and democracy. The idea is that everybody could learn by doing and that they also had a role in deciding, and all these decisions in this way helped build a democratic society. So, it was Deweyism, this behavioral psychology based on the work that was going on at that time by Stanley Hall and others. And the third area was Taylorism, the idea of scientific management, which is what they [the Gilbreths] were involved in—the sort of whole worldview that they were involved in—that everything is measurable; that is, the scientific parts of it are studiable, analyzable, and then once you have done all this, you can apply this knowledge to managing whatever it is you want to manage in such a way that people would be more productive.
So they have got this idea that this is how they should bring their children up and the psychology, this Taylorism, and the idea of educational democracy. So they tried to involve the children in some of the things that they did and some of the experiments that they talked about. A couple of them happened actually one summer in Nantucket. They had bought a little cottage in Nantucket and Lillian that summer had just given birth to Bob who was the, I don’t know, the eleventh, whatever, one of the last few. She was tired and she needed a bit of a rest. So one of the things that Frank did that summer was to enlist the children into a couple of projects that he was doing. One was for Lever Brothers. He was being paid for this one and he had got the kids working as part of the experiment. In those days, soap was made in a mold and several things had to happen. Somebody had to scrape the edges where the two parts of the mold had stuck together; you know, little bits of soap had to be scraped off with a knife. And then they had to be put into boxes. He was filming people trying various ways of doing these two tasks, the scraping and the boxing. He filmed the children doing some of it as well. That was one of them.
A second, he filmed them picking blueberries up on the moors in Nantucket. They put grids on the ground to see how many blueberries were in this square and that square and the other squares—one of the things they always did.
They also involved the children in typing experiments. They taught all of them to touch-type from a quite young age, on a white typewriter, which was what they called “Moby Dick.” It had no letters on the keys, so they had to learn to touch-type without, and they nearly put Ernestine, who was one of the older girls, in some speed-typing competition just to show that their method of teaching eight-year-olds to type was such a good one. Lillian apparently objected to that, saying that Ernestine was conceited enough as it was, and so they found someone not twelve, not a child, to be in that competition.
Amanda: You have said a lot about filming and capturing some of these experiments on film, and we are talking about the nineteen-teens when Frank was filming a lot of these things. So film was a relatively new technology, and I wonder what your thoughts are on how the knowledge that they were on film, and kind of the novelty of being on film, might have affected the behavior of the experiment subjects. So, whether it was workers or [the Gilbreths’ children]—
Jane: I think it almost certainly did. This happened—the first of these major filming experiments was at a company called the New England Boot Company in Providence, and they were assembling machinery that is used to braid things like bootlaces or anything that needs braiding. It is one rather complicated machine that does it. And they enlisted the cooperation of many of the men who were very suspicious about what these efficiency experts might be up to, by showing them the films of themselves. And so Frank would have these frequent, I think weekly, meetings and they would show the films and ask the men, “Now, can you see what Joe is doing there?” “Joe, why were you doing it that way?” And then somebody would say, “Well, I do it this way,” and then they would have a discussion as to whether Joe’s way or this other guy’s way seemed to work better. And, by this way, he [Frank Gilbreth] got an extraordinary amount of cooperation because people had never seen themselves on film before, for one thing, and because it was a new technology, because they were having these weekly meetings with lots of cigars and treating them like collaborators rather than people to be told what to do. I think it is one of their reasons why there was so little trouble at New England Boot. Some of the contemporary places where the people were installing scientific management had lots of trouble and there were strikes and difficulties and congressional hearings. The Gilbreths tended not to.
Amanda: And when Frank died in 1924, Lillian, by then, she knew just as much as he did about motion study. She knew just as much as he did about how to run a consulting business. And instead of receding from the limelight, scaling back her work, she, in typical Lillian fashion, redoubled her efforts to gain respect from engineering circles. And even though she didn’t have her partner anymore, her male partner, she was able to find entry points and retain and even gain respect in her own right as an engineer. What motivated her to carry on after Frank’s death and how did she continue to create networks for herself among engineers?
Jane: Okay, I think there are three main reasons she went on working, perhaps four. [First] To carry on Frank’s wishes. He had always said that the children should all go to college and that they should spread the gospel of the “One Best Way.”
If the children are all going to go to college, she needs to pay for it. So, she needs the money. When Frank died they were comfortably off, but they weren’t rich, because every time he got some nice, fat, consulting fees, they tended to plow it back into the business, the fancy new camera equipment, or whatever, and they had also got rather a large house in Montclair [New Jersey] by this time and eleven children, one of whom was at college and the rest all headed there.
So, carry on Frank’s wishes, needing the money, and she loved work. It was a release, really, for her. If you look at what happened in the days after Frank died, he had a heart attack in a phone booth at the Lackawanna Railway Station on the Saturday in June 1924. By Thursday, she had an autopsy conducted, sent his brain to Harvard in a jar, had a funeral service, had him cremated, scattered his ashes on the Hudson, and got on the boat to go to Europe.
Amanda: And, she wasn’t heartless by any means.
Amanda: She just always kept going.
Jane: She kept going. She said she had a meeting with the children, one of their nice democratic meetings. The children were already scheduled to go to Nantucket for the summer with Anne, who is the oldest, who is an undergraduate at Smith College. I think she had just finished her freshman or sophomore year, I forget. Anne was going to be in charge. It was all organized, because Lillian and Frank were supposed to be going on that boat on the Thursday to Europe. So Lillian just went, because the plans were there. She couldn’t think what she would do with herself for six weeks in Nantucket. I don’t think she liked Nantucket very much. She wasn’t a sailor. She could never learn to swim. So, what is she going to do?
And she was in Europe for six weeks or two months going to engineering meetings, and this would come to the fourth motivation. She wanted to prove to all these people that whereas she had been planning to come with Frank, because he is her partner, she was perfectly capable of carrying on the work on her own, and she needed to convince all these heads of engineering societies and industrialists in Europe (and they were from all over the world) that she was capable of doing this. And so it was a good business decision as well as everything else.
Amanda: Do you think the male engineers in her various circles treated her differently after Frank died?
Jane: I think some of them were very supportive, very supportive indeed, and they probably had been anyway. Because, she had been at a lot of these engineering meetings and had held her own. She hadn’t been sitting there as a little woman nodding and saying, “Frank is wonderful.” She may have said that as well, but she had been there contributing to a discussion for several years now, maybe ten years now, ever since the conference at Dartmouth that she spoke up at. And so she was well known in engineering circles. In 1921, before Frank died, she had been made an honorary member of the Society for Industrial Engineers. She was number two; number one was Herbert Hoover. So she is in very illustrious company here. And male friends or engineering friends made it possible for her and sponsored her as a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which was the main engineering society. So she did get that kind of help from men in prominent positions, which was helpful, because then if she has got that behind her, although she was not a mechanical engineer, it would perhaps convince one or two of these companies that she wanted to do consulting work for.
So she finished off a lot of the consulting jobs that were in the pipeline when Frank died, but then she kind of reinvented herself, finding it easier perhaps to turn herself into an expert on women’s work. So this is where she started to work at places like Macy’s. Now, networking, I think you were asking about networking.
Jane: The woman who got her the job at Macy’s had trained with Lillian after Frank died. She held a scientific management training school in her house for, I don’t know, five or six years, and these were twelve-week terms. She charged quite a lot of money for these. And people came from all over the world. They came from England. They came from Japan. They came from Germany. From Sweden. And a lot of Americans. And one of the Americans was a personnel officer at Macy’s department store and she hired Lillian to do an analysis of the way their cash room operated. Now, I think you are too young to know this, but some of your listeners might be able to know. They used to have these chutes that you would put your change in, a pneumatic chute, like in drive-in banks if I remember right.
Amanda: Yeah, I remember those. I remember those
Jane: But these are huge things, and so nobody actually on the shop floor had any money, because you would buy whatever it was and they would put the money in one of these little containers and it would go shooting off somewhere. There were miles of these chutes apparently in the very big Macy’s store in Herald Square. And then there was a change room and it is very noisy because all this money would be popping in and out all the time. So, what she did was to sort of reorganize the change room in ergonomic terms, in sound-deadening terms, so the women working there didn’t get as tired (because a lot of noise is very tiring.) Then she organized the way people were trained—mostly women were trained—when they were the Christmas help; you know, during the holidays they would need more cashiers. Under the old system, it would take X weeks to train them; under her new system, it took half X weeks to train them. So this was more efficient and it saved Macy’s money, and so on and so forth. So that was got through networking.
Amanda: It is really fascinating to me how she evolved so much, both personally and in terms of her career and her career interests. You have spoken about her work in department stores. What about her advocacy for the disabled and her innovations to make—
Jane: Well, that is interesting because she and Frank started this off during the First World War with work for what they called crippled soldiers. And so they found men who had lost their limbs in the First World War and because they were so interested in motion study, they would try and devise systems with these men to do whatever work it was that they were capable of doing. So they would set up—one of them was the secretary to the mayor of Boston, and he was a man, because most men, a lot of men, were secretaries in those days. And because he couldn’t put extra pieces of paper into his typewriter because he only had one arm, they devised some continuous roll of paper that fed into his typewriter. They taught some men who worked in a shoe shop—well, a man who worked in a shoe shop—ways of wrapping parcels with one hand, because parcels were wrapped up in those days, you didn’t have plastic bags.
So this was the First World War, the crippled soldier work. And then, in the Second World War, Lillian was hired by the War Manpower Commission because a lot of men had gone to war. Their jobs were filled by women, which is one of the things she helped train, or they were filled by men who weren’t fit enough to go to war. And so she devised ways that men with cardiovascular disease could be doing industrial jobs by reorganizing the work so that men who were likely to get very tired easily could still do whatever it was.
Out of this came the work she did with what they called the “Handicapped Homemakers.” I love all these names. And this is in the late forties, and at this point she was hired by the University of Connecticut who was doing a project on ways that women with disabilities could be taught to manage their babies, their houses, their vacuum cleaners, or whatever they needed to manage. And this came out of the polio epidemics in the late forties. There were a number of women who were in wheelchairs, more car accidents, you know; there were a lot of reasons why women needed to adapt the way they worked. There was this strong assumption that women should be looking after their own houses and babies. And so that is what she did, the “Handicapped Homemaker” work.
Amanda: How could we apply the story of Lillian’s life and her career decisions to women today?
Jane: Well, I thought about this quite a bit because people will always say to me, “Look, she had servants. Look, she had help.” Yes, she did. The help was not always helpful, I don’t think, because for the first half, most of her married life, she had a mother-in-law living with her as a household manager. Her mother-in-law and Frank were devoted to each other and I think Lillian was a bit of an outsider in this. Then, Tom [hired assistant] wasn’t the easiest person to look after or to be looked after by. Also, the other thing is that she was somewhat neglected in the early wave of rediscovering founding mothers because she was a Republican; she wasn’t a radical, or not a political radical, although she was probably quite radical in the way she chose to live her life; she was devoted to her husband, who was sometimes not an easy person.
I think the way she is a role model is that she could or should be remembered—is that she was—she overcame an extraordinary amount of difficulties and was very determined to do what she thought was right, and to work. She loved work above anything and she loved being useful. She was influential in the way she applied psychology to industry and to commerce and to education.
And she is important because, probably because, she liked to take a nap; she didn’t work all the time. She said that it is very important to take a nap after lunch and to lie down with a good book and rest. This idea of you may have to—you can be efficient and do things but then you make time for the things that you want to do—it is probably the message that overworked women today might want to take. That yes, you do work hard, yes, you love what you are doing, but you make time for other things as well, and that is what I think she did.
Amanda: Jane, I want to thank you. I think that the way that you write about these “intersections,” you call them, between the public and the private, her life and her work, her family and the larger society—it really gets at one of the Lemelson Center’s interests in showing that inventers aren’t working in isolation. Even though it may seem to us like Frank and Lillian could just rely on their family unit for all of their experiments, they were actually incorporating ideas from other disciplines. They were experimenting with different processes. There was all this knowledge coming in and out of their family unit and there was a whole array of other factors in their inventive process. So you have really shown us, through Lillian, some of these intersections with her community and other people, and with different tools and technology, and it is all part of the invention process.
Amanda: Thank you so much for your time.
Jane: It is a pleasure.
Matt Ringelstetter: That was Amanda Murray speaking with Lillian Gilbreth biographer Jane Lancaster. If you would like to let us know what you thought of this episode or any in the series, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write a review on our iTunes page or even take the anonymous survey found at invention.smithsonian.org/video. For the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center and Inventive Voices, this is Matt Ringelstetter. Tune in again next month for more interesting stories, people, and places in the world of invention and innovation.