Some of you might remember a 2003 movie called “Cheaper by the Dozen.” I certainly do. The movie is about a family of 12 kids, and I remember vividly feeling both fascinated and perplexed at the thought that someone could have so many children. I recently discovered it was based on a semi-autobiographical book written by two of the kids in the story. This is how I learned about Lillian Gilbreth, the woman who gave birth to such a numerous progeny, but also was a brilliant efficiency expert who designed the layout of the modern kitchen.
Born in 1878 in Oakland, California, Lillian studied literature at Berkeley University. However, upon meeting her husband Frank Gilbreth, she came to share his enthusiasm for motion study and workplace efficiency. She switched from literature to psychology and earned a doctorate from Brown University. The Gilbreths’ time and motion studies were centered around understanding how to improve efficiency by changing human behavior.
The Gilbreths’ story is far more interesting than the chaotic succession of antics narrated in the movie. The couple applied their motion study findings to their own children, turning the family home into a sort of laboratory where they could test the results of their research. This sometimes meant brushing your teeth in a particular fashion, showering in a limited amount of time or mathematically sharing housework.
When Frank died in 1924, Lillian took over his consultancy firm. She had been working alongside him before, even contributing to some of his books without getting the credit she deserved. Soon enough, the company was thriving. Lillian was working relentlessly while still conducting research, lecturing and writing.
Lillian Gilbreth was everything but a housewife. She worked outside the home and could barely perform any housekeeping tasks, not even cooking. However, her practical mind made her realize that kitchens were poorly designed: furniture was scattered across the room, food was stored in faraway cellars and all of this meant the cook was wasting time and energy moving around. Convinced that she could apply her motion study findings to housework, Lillian designed a kitchen that would more than halve the number of steps necessary to bake a cake.
She unveiled her creation, “Gilbreth’s Kitchen Practical,” in 1929. From a 2019 perspective, it looks like a very normal kitchen: built-in appliances with counter space on top, cupboards hung on the walls, shelves inside the refrigerator door. At the time, this design was extraordinarily modern—and if it looks normal to us, it’s because it’s still the most widely used today. Incidentally, she invented another extremely common object: the foot-pedal trashcan.
Lillian Gilbreth died in 1972. Her life had been eventful, and with her sharp and rational mind she had designed things that impacted the lives of millions of people. She lived during a time when housework was still very much the responsibility of a woman, alone. Lillian Gilbreth helped women save time—time they could use for themselves, instead. So next time you bake a cake, take a minute to mentally thank her for making it easier!
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