Case Study: Lillian Gilbreth

It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that first a literature, and then a science, developed about the best way to cook and clean. The results of this research shape the way we treat housework today, and created a template for the kitchen that remains conceptually unchanged since the 1920s.

Lillian and her partner Frank B. Gilbreth, inventors of what is known as motion study, pioneered the use of short films to watch how industrial processes and office tasks were done, breaking them down into component parts (which they called “therblig,” Gilbreth backward) to determine how to make a job faster and less taxing. They tested many of their ideas on their children, establishing “the one best way” to take a bath, training preteens to touch type, and charting age-appropriate chores for each child. Lillian planned, on paper, an efficiency-type kitchenette of the kind used today in a good many apartments. Under her arrangement, a person could mix a cake, put it in the oven, and do the dishes, without taking more than a couple of dozen steps. As she told a group of businesswomen in 1930, “We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labour in the home. We were executives.”

The Gilbreths: The true family story behind the hit film Cheaper by the Dozen.

Cheaper by the Dozen is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, published in 1948. The book was first made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox in 1950, and then recreated in 2003.

Motion Study Experiments

The Gilbreths found that their motion study methods, though sound in theory, at best produced only partial and temporary efficiencies in practice, and more often than not exacerbated tensions, not only between the workers and managers they were supposed to reconcile, but also among scientific managers themselves. Ultimately, the Gilbreth’s simply were less successful as manufacturers than as marketers of their motion study strategies. That their strategies and techniques survived and prospered is testimony less to their intrinsic worth as they practiced them than to the image of their worth which the Gilbreths carefully cultivated.

The Kitchen Practical

Following the motion saving experiments, the Gilbreth’s developed a prototype of the “practical kitchen”. The kitchen was intended to showcase the new gas-fuelled appliances as well as Gilbreth’s research on motion savings. It was to replace the loose-fit kitchen of many traditional homes (including the Gilbreths’): a large room with discrete pieces of furniture around the edges. These might include a table, a freestanding cupboard, an icebox, a sink with a drying board and a stove. Ingredients, utensils, and cookware might be across the room, or even in a separate pantry. Working outward from her analysis of the motions, equipment and ingredients required to bake a cake, Gilbreth put stove and counter side-by-side, with food storage above, pan storage below, and the refrigerator a step away. A rolling cart provided additional surface area and could be wheeled to the sink with a load of dirty dishes, where soap, sponge and drying rack were all within reach. The idea was to create a tight circuit for the cook, with little need to move the feet. The L-shaped arrangement she devised continues to be one of the most popular options for contemporary kitchens.

To quantify the efficiency of the Kitchen Practical, and a later, similar kitchen designed for the New York Herald Tribune Magazine, Gilbreth used a metric from the motion study of the production line: steps. As described in the 1931 Better Homes Manual. The test of the efficiency of the new kitchen was made with strawberry shortcake. The results of this test were so startling as to be almost unbelievable. The number of kitchen operations had been cut from 97 to 64. The number of actual steps taken had been reduced from 281 to 45—less than one-sixth.

In our current era of FitBits and Strava, saving steps may not sound like an unmixed blessing, but the manual had a clear position on where those steps should be taken. The Herald Tribune Institute is not opposed to walking and exercise for the woman of the family but they maintain that she should take that exercise in the open air, rather than in a treadmill round of refrigerator to sink, to stove and back again.