Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth


The book discussed in this post is Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth — A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen”.

When we repurpose tools of science and management for distinctly personal ends, we’re extending a path laid down for us by many ingenious predecessors. I want to take advantage of the last hours of the day to honor one of the greatest early biometricians, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and to revive a question posed, at least implicitly, by her work.

Gilbreth began her career in the early part of the last century as a disciple of the founder of scientific management, Frederick Taylor. Even before she got her PhD, she was doing time motions studies with her husband Frank Gilbreth with the aim of improving worker efficiency. Frank Gilbreth died in 1924. By the time Lillian died, in 1972 at age 94, she’d taken what began as Taylorist dogma and turned it into a practice of close observation and participatory learning that almost turned it on it’s head. Instead of seeing human beings as a factor of production, to be exploited like any other resource until worn and replaced, she asked about the human factor in production: what was work for, what were its conditions and benefits, and how could it be improved.

Gilbreth was very well known in her day, so she’s easy to learn about and there’s no need to crib from sources you can consult yourself. Perhaps my favorite biographical detail is that, after being denied a PhD in 1912 by the University of California, Berkeley because her family and business responsibilities prevented her from being on campus during the last year of her studies, Gilbreth published her research as a series of articles in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Digest, and then as a book, and then just went ahead and got a PhD from Brown. Although it’s quite something to become a towering figure in a new field, developing many novel research methods, and it’s of course no small honor to be a member of the National Academy of Engineering (she was the first woman elected), my academic friends will surely bow in awe before somebody who deals with a recalcitrant and small minded graduate department by marching off to a competing school and writing a second dissertation.

She was like that all her life. Jane Lancaster’s biography of Gilbreth, Making Time, gives a sympathetic but critically aware portrait of a person who embodied, challenged, compromised with, exploited, and suffered from conflicting ideals and demands of women’s work. Gilbreth made her living consulting for corporations, especially those whose employees and customers were women. She was a key link between scientific management and consumer culture, taking techniques developed for studying workers on the shop floor and applying them to home life. In 1927 she wrote a practical guide called The Home-maker and Her Job, and for many years after she continued to do close observational studies and produced a nearly endless stream of advice for coping.

From today’s vantage point we easily see that increasing the efficiency housework didn’t bring about the general emancipation it promised. For many people, time saved washing dishes is lost to doing paid work at stagnant wages; while savings from the lower cost of manufactured goods is eaten up by the price of healthcare and childcare. The cheery scientism of late Victorian elites looks naive from a century’s distance; that is, when its unhesitant racism doesn’t make it simply revolting. Gilbreth, at least at the beginning of the century, hoped that “positive eugenics” could improve the human species. Lancaster doesn’t go very deeply into this side of the rationalist ethos, except to note that Gilbreth wasn’t in favor of sterilization or murder, instead believing that people of high intelligence should have as many children as possible. She lived her faith, giving birth to twelve, one of whom wrote a memoir, Cheaper By the Dozen, in which she is reduced to a feminine caricature.

You can read Cheaper By the Dozen and watch both of the movies made from it without learning any of the most interesting things about Gilbreth’s research. For instance, in 1926 she undertook an unprecedented study on menstruation and menstrual pads, for which she canvassed, Lancaster writes, “a long list of potential informants, ranging form the Women’s Bureau through the American Federation of Labor to gynecologists, prison workers, and laundries.” In the early 1930’s she launched a project involving over 100 interviews and 20,000 questionnaires collecting data on sex and age discrimination. Before Frank died, he and Lillian Gilbreth carried out some of the very first, and certainly the most thorough, studies of how people with disabilities can benefit from kitchens designed specially for them, and after he died she continued to advocate passionately for better design to support independent living. Paid by Macy’s to improve the efficiency of their cashiers, she went to work on the sales floor herself, coming to understand in an intimate way the different meaning of “tiredness” for women of different ages working for different reasons.

Gilbreth didn’t merely link scientific management to consumer culture through her research, she also embodied – through her seemingly supernatural productivity – it’s greatest tensions. Gilbreth was a non-conforming rationalist engineer, and a bourgeois advocate of domesticity. (She argued for what she called a “50-50 marriage” of shared domestic labor but backed down in the face of ridicule, paying at least lip service the idea of a woman’s sphere.) She spent a good part of her life addressing the problems of working women, while of course working herself, and yet her greatest public fame came from the “biological wonder” of her twelve children.

Gilbreth understood efficiency, and yet her work leaves us with a question: what does efficiency cost? The promise is mastery, sufficiency, ease of accomplishment, when unnecessary friction has been eliminated. Do things the “one best way” and look what you get: Two dissertations. Twelve children. A long shelf of original and useful publications. She made it look easy. But as Lancaster makes clear, the ease is an illusion. Automation and routinization works best under controlled circumstance, but controls fail, and someone has to clean up the mess. Gilbreth mainly cleaned her own messes, though not all of them. The book’s most provocative minor character is the man who worked for decades as her main domestic servant, Tom Grieves. He’s presented as grumbly but affectionate, a practical person with a cigarette always on his lips, doing dishes and straightening rooms, chasing children around, and generally needed to maintain the conditions of predictability required for rational management to function. Grieve’s comment on his employer’s obsession with efficiency was succinct: She was, he said, trying to “make it easy for folks to work hard.”

Gilbreth exposed the realities of women’s work both inside and outside the home, but always with the promise that good technique could lift the burden. The promise is still with us; but, then again why is it still just a promise? I think it honors Gilbreth’s legacy to keep asking this question, even as it takes us outside the domain of efficiency she pioneered.

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