KEYWORDS: Motion study, Fatigue Study, Gilbreth’s Kitchen Practical, Gilbreth Management Desk, Frank B. Gilbreth, “Therbligs”.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Lillian Moller Gilbreth was an American industrial engineer and psychologist, management consultant, professor and government advisor. Alongside her husband Frank B. Gilbreth, she pioneered industrial management and her psychological insights become the basis of modern management and Organizational Psychology. For two decades (1904-1924) the Gilbreth couple established their “One Best Way” by focusing on motion study, fatigue elimination and workspace efficiency1. Lillian Gilbreth adopted Frank Gilbreth’s enthusiasm for eliminating wasted motion in the workplace and her psychological knowledge enriched and completed her husband’s mechanical insights. During these years, the Gilbreths “divorced” the Taylorites, developed further the use of visual image and micro motion films and patented their pioneering work under the title “therbligs” (Gilbreth spelled backwards)2. Their reputation crossed the Atlantic Ocean by establishing several networks and societies around Europe and working for manufacturing firms and service sectors companies.
During her life, Gilbreth came across gender prejudice several times. Her first doctoral work, The Psychology of Management (1914) was published as a book under the gender-neutral name “L. M. Gilbreth”3 (p.350). After her husband’s death, she stood to face a great deal of insecurity as the majority of their consulting firm clients cancelled their contracts. However, resourceful as she was, Lillian Gilbreth re-invented herself as an expert in home economics and marketing advisor and a management teacher, without setting aside her work and research on industrial engineering4. In an era when American women had begun to move into the labor force and occupy positions in light industry, she (re)designed model kitchens and invented appliances that corresponded to homemaker’s actual needs.
Firstly, she designed the “Gilbreth’s Kitchen Practical” for Brooklyn Gas Co.4 (p.659). In 1933, at the Chicago World’s Fair, she presented the “Gilbreth Management Desk”, which was exhibited by IBM5 (p.77). She also worked with General Electric and other appliance manufacturing firms to improve the efficiency of household appliances. Two of her major inventions were the shelves inside refrigerator doors and the foot-pedal trash can6. Secondly, her work at Macy’s, alongside Eugenia Lies, revealed Gilbreth’s pioneer spirit. Between 1925 and 1927, she volunteered her management services at New York’s department store where gender-based conflict, efficiency and effectiveness were at stake7. Her effective results attracted firms like Sears Roebuck and Johnson & Johnson, which hired her in order to further develop their market policies, especially by improving and designing sanitary napkins5 (p.79). However, it is worth mentioning that the firms mentioned above “were willing to pay her as a teacher but not as an on-site management consultant”4 (pp.643-644).
Finally, another of Gilbreth’s major interests was people with disabilities5. Lillian Gilbreth worked with the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University and designed special household equipment for women with physical disabilities. In 1945, she and Edna Yost co-wrote a book dedicated to disabled people, stressing the importance of being economically independent, having a sense of purpose as citizens and feeling dignity and happiness 8.
Lillian (Elizabeth) Moller Gilbreth was born in Oakland on May 24, 1878. Both parents, William Moller and Annie Delger, were of German origin. Her father was a prosperous builder’s supply merchant based in San Francisco and her mother was a homemaker. Lillian Moller was the oldest child in a large family, which enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle, and she was educated at home until the age of nine. In the fall of 1892, she started her education at Oakland Public High School, from which she graduated with straight-As in May 1896. Her father did not support his daughter’s will to continue her studies; however, Lillian Moller managed to overcome her father’s opposition as she wanted to acquire a wider role outside the home and family life9 (p.44). Hence, she started her Bachelor studies at Berkeley (California), majoring in English Literature. She also gained a good command of knowledge in Philosophy and Psychology. Her academic excellence made her the first female to present the commencement speech at the graduation ceremony at Berkeley in 1900. The same year, she left home to start her Master’s Degree at Columbia University (New York). She registered as a student in Philosophy and Comparative Literature, but to her disappointment, she discovered that literary scholar James Brander Mathews refused to accept female students in his class9 (p.54). Before her return to Oakland due to a severe cold (pleurisy), she attended courses on psychology and was strongly influenced by Edward Thorndike, a pioneer of functionalist psychology10 (p.546). In Oakland, she returned to Berkeley to study Elizabethan Literature and received her Master’s in the spring of 1902. She traveled to Europe in 1903 and in Boston (before her departure) she met Frank Bunker Gilbreth, an innovative building contractor who had had his own company since 1895. They married in October, 1904 and this was not only the beginning of a successful marriage but also that of a prosperous partnership. Between 1905 and 1922, Lillian Gilbreth gave birth to thirteen children, eleven of whom survived into adulthood.
Although Frank Gilbreth enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he never finished it. He devoted himself in workplace efficiency and therefore he strongly advocated for Lillian to apply herself to scientific management. Together, they established their industrial management and engineering consulting firm, Gilbreth Inc., first in Providence, Rhode Island and later in Montclair, New Jersey. Frank Gilbreth encouraged his wife to obtain her PhD at Berkeley, which she submitted in 1911 under the title The Psychology of Management; however, it was rejected, as she failed to meet the requirement of a final year in residence due to family duties5 (p.63). After resettling on Rhode Island, Lillian Gilbreth submitted her second PhD thesis in Psychology, Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching to Brown University in 1915. The PhD permitted her to “officially” co-write many papers, studies and two books with Frank11, 12. In addition, Lillian and Frank Gilbreth turned their house into a laboratory; they installed the appropriate equipment and their research assistants, their children, were asked to follow and participate in the creation of plans and work charts for their activities5 (p.58-72).
Gilbreth’s life changed when her husband passed away suddenly after a heart attack in 1924. Facing the contracts’ cancellation from their industrial clients, Gilbreth ran twice a year a three-month course on motion studies for managers out of her home and laboratory, which permitted her to pay family’s bills and children’s college tuitions5 (pp.75-76). Concurrently, she remained active in research, lecturing and writing; she also became a frequent author at the Journal of Industrial Psychology7 (p.289). At the end of 1920s, she wrote two books, The Home Maker and Her Job (1927) and Living with our Children (1928), in which she not only stressed out the importance of household efficiency, but also demonstrated her personal insights about the multiple challenges that women face as homemakers, mothers, workers and individuals. During the Great Depression and the consequences following the stock market crash in 1929, Gilbreth joined the Women’s Division of the President’s Emergency Committee for Unemployment Relief. Her main responsibility was to raise awareness on intelligent consumption among women in order to increase employment rates10 (p.558). During World War II, she was an advisor to several governmental groups such as the War Manpower Commission, the Office of War Information, the Women’s Army Corps and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service10 (pp.75, 83). Her principles on motion studies were used to boost civil defense and increase war production.
Lillian Gilbreth died in 1972 at the age of 94. She was not only a great mother of eleven and a successful partner, in business and in marriage, to Frank Gilbreth, but also a heterogeneous personality whose diverse interests, skillfulness and efficiency proved to be the sources of her relentless power13.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Dr. Lillian Gilbreth received more than twenty honorary degrees and many awards for her distinguished contributions to Engineering and Psychology9. In 1935, Purdue University made her the first and only full-time female faculty member as Professor of Management in its School of Mechanical Engineering; she remained there until her retirement in 1948. In 1950, she became the first honorary member of the newly created Society of Women Engineers. She also received honorary degrees from universities like Princeton, Brown and Michigan. At the age of 86, she was appointed resident lecturer at MIT. She was also depicted in cinema in the movies Belles on their Toes (1952) and Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) which are based on two books written by Gilbreth’s children, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. In 1984, the United States Postal Service launched a series of post stamps and Lillian Gilbreth was the first psychologist to be commemorated. In 1966, she was the first woman to receive the Hoover Medal for distinguished public service by an engineer. Furthermore, she was appointed by six U.S. presidents (Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) under different national circumstances. Finally, Lilian Gilbreth was invited in radio talks and had given many interviews and lectures in magazines and conferences around U.S. and Europe5 (pp. 73-79).
SHE SAID IT
“Through the various campaigns for Wise Spending, the woman consumer has come to know that while as an individual she may have a small budget, she belongs to a group which controls vast sums of money. She can use this power to help or to hinder”.
cited by Graham, Laurel (1997), “Beyond Manipulation: Lillian Gilbreth’s Industrial Psychology and the Governmentality of Women Consumers”, The Sociological Quarterly, 38 (4), 539.
“Many of the women who complain that they have no leisure for mental life are wasting time on a thousand and one things that are as unessential [sic] to the happiness of a family as a ragout of opals. Usually they keep on doing these useless things because they are afraid of neighborhood opinion”.
cited by Graham, Laurel (1997), “Beyond Manipulation: Lillian Gilbreth’s Industrial Psychology and the Governmentality of Women Consumers”, The Sociological Quarterly, 38 (4), 549-550.
THEY SAID IT
“She [Lillian Gilbreth] refused the short-sighted and simplistic images of women workers and consumers that prevailed in her day, but rather she insisted that women be treated as full persons possessing intelligence, integrity, and individuality”.
Graham, Laurel (2013), “Lillian Gilbreth’s psychologically enriched scientific management of women consumers”, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 5(3), 366.
“Lillian’s own balance of home and work had taught her not to judge, but to give women the tools to work out the best balance for themselves”.
Des Jardins, Julie (2010), The Madame Curie Complex. The Hidden History of Women in Science, New York, Feminist Press, 81.
“Instead, I saw Gilbreth as multiple, protean, fluid, fragmented, and heterogeneous. When painted this way, her portrait looks more like me and other people alive today who are more or less conscious of their multiple identities”.
Graham, Laurel (1994), “Critical Biography without Subjects and Objects: An Encounter with Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth”, The Sociological Quarterly, 35 (4), 639.
PRIZES, DISTINCTIONS, HONOURS
The following list contains a selection of distinctions and honours.
1921: First female honorary member of the Society of Industrial Engineers.
1926: She joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
1931: She received the first Gilbreth Medal for distinguished contributions to management from the Society of Industrial Engineers.
1935: Purdue University made her the first and only full-time female faculty member as Professor of Management in its School of Mechanical Engineering.
1944: The Gilbreth received the Henry Laurence Gantt Medal from the Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Management Society. The medal was awarded to Frank posthumously.
1950: First honorary member of the newly created Society of Women Engineers.
1958: The Society of Women Engineers established the Lillian Moller Gilbreth Scholarship (Society’s oldest scholarship) in honour of Dr. Lillian Gilbreth.
1961: The Institute of Industrial Systems Engineers established the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award; she and Frank (posthumously) were the first recipients.
1965: First woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
1966: First woman who received the Hoover Medal for distinguished public service by an engineer.
1984: The United States Postal Service issued a 40¢ Great Americans series postage stamp in order to honour their influence and achievements; Lilian Gilbreth’s stamp was lauded by the American Psychological Association as the first psychologist to be so commemorated.
1995: She was honoured by the US National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Herring, Frank (1929-1930), Lillian Moller Gilbreth, painting, oil in canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, New York.
Belles on Their Toes (1952), Dir. Henry Levin, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Film.
Diversity Development (production) (2003), Women on Stamps, United States Postal Service, available on <http://about.usps.com/publications/pub512.pdf> (last accessed 16.12.2016).
Stephens, Carlene E. (curator), On Time, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 1999-2006, <http://americanhistory.si.edu/ontime/saving/kitchen.html> (last accessed 16 Dec. 2016).
This exhibition was focused on the ways we have measured and used time over the past three hundred years. The section under the title “Saving Time 1920–1960. Americans became obsessed with using time efficiently” honored Lillian Gilbreth inventions and depicted how scientific management had been introduced not only for increasing the productivity but also for making more efficient the home space.
Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), Dir. Shawn Levy, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Film.
Kulling, Monica (2014), Spic-and-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen, illus. David Parkins, Toronto, Tundra Books.
Des Jardins, Julie (2012), Lillian Gilbreth: Redefining Domesticity, Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press.
Gilbreth, Frank Bunker Jr. / Gilbreth Ernestine, Carey (2002), Cheaper than the Dozen, New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics .
— (2003), Belles on their Toes, New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 
Levey, Jane F. (2001), “Imagining the Family in U.S. Postwar Popular Culture: The Case of The Egg and I and Cheeper by the Dozen”, Journal of Women’s History, 13 (3), 125-150. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Quest for the One Best Way (1968), Presented by James S. Perkins in collaboration with Dr. Ralph M. Barnes, Commentary by Dr. Lillian Gilbreth and James S. Perkins, available on <http://earchives.lib.purdue.edu/cdm/ref/collection/gilbreth/id/16> (last accessed 09 Dec. 2016).
Yost, Edna (1949), Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Partners for Life, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.
- Gilbreth, Lillian (1926), The Quest for the One Best Way: A Sketch of the Life of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Chicago, Society of Industrial Engineers.
- Wood, Michael C. / Wood, John C. (ed.) (2003), Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Critical Evaluation in Business and Management, London, New York, Routledge.
- Graham, Laurel (2013), “Lillian Gilbreth’s psychologically enriched scientific management of women consumers”, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 5(3), 351-369.
- Graham, Laurel (1999), “Domesticating Efficiency: Lillian Gilbreth’s Scientific Management of Homemakers, 1924-1930”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 24 (3), 633-675. Retrieved from The University of Chicago Press and JSTOR on <https://goo.gl/pkWGOw> (last accessed at 12 Dec. 2016).
- Des Jardins, Julie (2010), The Madame Curie Complex. The Hidden History of Women in Science, New York, Feminist Press, 53-87.
- Kelly, Rit M. / Kelly, Vincent P. (1990), “Lillian Moller Gilbreth”, in Women in Psychology: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 117-124.
- Graham, Laurel (2000), “Lillian Gilbreth and the mental revolution at Macy’s, 1925-1928”, Journal of Management History, 6 (7), 285-305.
- Yost, Edna / Gilbreth, Lillian M. (1944), Normal Lives for the Disabled, New York, MacMillan Company.
- Lancaster, Jane (2004), Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen”, Boston, Northeastern University Press.
- Graham, Laurel (1997), “Beyond Manipulation: Lillian Gilbreth’s Industrial Psychology and the Governmentality of Women Consumers”, The Sociological Quarterly, 38 (4), 539-565.
- Gilbreth, Frank B. / Gilbreth, L. M. (1917), Applied Motion Study, New York, Sturgis & Walton Company, available on
<https://archive.org/stream/appliedmotionstu00gilbrich#page/n11/mode/2up> (last accessed at 13 Dec. 2016).
- Gilbreth, Frank B. / Gilbreth, Lillian M. (1919), Fatigue Study, New York, MacMillan Company , available on
<https://archive.org/stream/studyfatigueelim00gilbrich#page/n3/mode/2up> (last accessed at 13 Dec. 2016).
- Graham, Laurel (1994), “Critical Biography without Subjects and Objects: An Encounter with Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth”, The Sociological Quarterly, 35 (4), 621-643.