On Our Bookshelves – 1948’s Cheaper by the Dozen


NOVEL: Cheaper By the Dozen

AUTHORS: Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey



I picked up Cheaper By the Dozen at the train station (there are some racks of used paperbacks donated by the local library, very convenient for commuters) without knowing much about it–I had a vague impression that it was about a family with twelve kids and that there had been films based on the book.  It was, it turns out, a rather entertaining semi-autobiographical novel about a rather unusual family roughly a hundred years ago, and much much interesting than I thought it would be.


Yes, there are twelve children, six boys and six girls.  (The book is co-authored by two of them.)  They are loving and chaotic and adventuresome, with a patient and kind mother and an equally kind, eccentric, and larger-than-life father.  He (Frank Gilbreth) is a famous expert on time and motion studies, advising companies (and the US army during WWI) on efficiency and increasing productivity: the best way to lay bricks, the best way to assist surgeons, the best way to assemble and disassemble small arms, and so forth.  He runs his family just like a factory, or tries to, teaches his children everything from astronomy to Morse code to how to multiply two digit numbers in their heads, and is charming and blustery and indefigatable.


There’s not much of a plot, just a series of anecdotes about the family’s adventures: a train trip to California to spend time with their relatives on their mother’s side, a joke played on a birth control activist being unexpectedly presented with their brood, the decision to have all of their tonsils removed simultaneously, and so on.  What I found particularly interesting was the portrait of the times, the backdrop to the family’s doings.  Here is Montclair, New Jersey and a rapidly changing society, with affordable automobiles, and fast technological progress, optimism, and growing prosperity.  There are (as there always are) generational conflicts…the children have a strict Victorian aunt, and jazz music, bobbed hair, and silk stockings all become points of contention between the older girls and their parents. Courting is rapidly being replaced by dating, leading to more freedom for teenagers, but also some alarming incidents, like having a suitor becoming a peeping tom. There’s also some horrifically casual racism, which is jarring by today’s standards: minstrel shows, the crude depiction of the pidgin of the Chinese cook at their grandparents’ house, talk of being skinned like “red Indians,” and the mother using the term “Eskimo” for anything she considers crude, vulgar, or inappropriate.


Being curious when I finished the book, I read some more about the family, and learned that the true story is even more interesting than the fictionalized version.  (One sad bit is that there were actually 13 children; one was stillborn, and another died young of diphtheria. Eleven survived to adulthood.) The mother, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was an equal partner with her husband in his consulting business.  And after he died in 1924, she carried on with her career until her own death in 1972. She had a PhD (whereas he didn’t go to college).  Their research on fatigue study was a precursor to the field of ergonomics.  She invented the foot-pedal trash can, and created the kitchen “work triangle” still used by designers today.  During the Great Depression, she worked in the Hoover administration on the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment; during World War II she provided expertise on education and labor issues for the US Navy.


But that’s all a bit far afield…this is a lighthearted book, a product of its times, a mostly sweet reminiscence of a happy childhood and a caring family.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 Whistles




Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com


Lead-In Image (Smiley Egg) Courtesy of Tiger’s Pride / Shutterstock.com



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