In the mid-1920s, industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, a pioneer in factory efficiency studies and mother of twelve, turned her attention to domestic spaces and patterns of work. She saw the home as a workplace, and the homemaker as both worker and manager. Her goal: to increase productivity, reduce drudgery, and accumulate "happiness minutes"—the time saved for leisure or creative pursuits.
Matriarch & Manager
Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, with nine of their twelve children, about 1920
Dr. Lillian Gilbreth started her career studying factory and office work in partnership with her husband, Frank. When he died in 1924, she began to study housework and home management. She applied analytical methods the couple developed for studying motion in time, as well as the lessons learned while raising twelve children, made famous in the film Cheaper by the Dozen, and advocated ways to increase the efficiencies and satisfactions of the household. She wrote prolifically, lectured widely, and earned international celebrity for balancing career and family.
Lillian Gilbreth paid special attention to the kitchen. She analyzed the motions in food-preparation and reorganized work spaces to eliminate repetitive steps. She promoted new, supposedly time- and labor-saving appliances and devices. She disseminated her ideas to thousands of homemakers in books and articles and in a series of influential model kitchens. Ironically, Gilbreth and others helped raise the standard of what was considered acceptable housekeeping. Instead of helping women at home save time, the new standards created more for them to do.
Managing the Home
Lillian Gilbreth believed that running a household was like running a business. At the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, she unveiled the Gilbreth Management Desk, promoted as the "Business Headquarters of the Household Manager." Intended for the kitchen, the desk had a clock and, within easy reach, a radio, telephone, adding machine, typewriter, household files, reference books, schedules, and a series of pull-out charts with tips on organizing and planning household tasks.
Gift of Michael B. Margolius
Kurt F. O'Connor
Adding machine, about 1935
Gift of Victor Comptometer Corporation
Typewriter, about 1934
Gift of Immaculata High School, Washington, D.C.
Motion Studies for the Disabled
Typing study, about 1920
With the aid of still and moving pictures, the Gilbreths pioneered an elaborate system for analyzing motion in time. Injured World War I veterans inspired the couple's first motion studies on behalf of disabled workers. The polio epidemic of the 1950s drew attention to the needs of disabled homemakers. Lillian Gilbreth designed kitchens for women with various disabilities, devised simplified ways to perform housework and child care, and advised manufacturers on how to produce easy-on, easy-off children's clothing.
The Gilbreth Method
Therbligs (roughly Gilbreth spelled backward), 1927; for elements of motion, from The Home-Maker and Her Job by Lillian Gilbreth
The Gilbreths pioneered the use of photography in analyzing motion in time. Subjects wore lights attached to their fingers that left tracings in multiple-exposure still photographs. The light paths were rendered in three-dimensional models and studied to eliminate wasted motion. The Gilbreths also recorded subjects using a motion picture camera. Each movement was broken down into a set of elements that were defined and illustrated using hieroglyphic-like "therbligs." These studies enabled the Gilbreths to prescribe the best way to do any task with the least amount of effort and time.
Chronocyclegraph, about 1920; a multiple-exposure still photograph
Micromotion study, about 1912; at New England Butt Company, Providence, Rhode Island