August 21, 2002

Lillian Gilbreth

Belles on their Toes, Gilbreth & Carey

The Home-Maker and her Job, Lillian Gilbreth

I ran across Belles... randomly, read it for the whimsical descriptions of the social strains between 1924 - when flappers were still shocking in most of the country - and the '50s; realized that it's the sequel to the much more famous Cheaper by the Dozen and a sidelight on the much more interesting life of Lillian Gilbreth.

Gilbreth had, in this order, a doctorate in psychology (I think), twelve children, eleven surviving, and a career in industrial psychology, design, and efficiency after her husband died in 1924. Belles... is written by two of her children and remembers a wonderful - though not easy - childhood. They were fairly poor after their father died, and Gilbreth was faced with keeping his consulting business - despite being a woman - while being a single mother of eleven. Habits of industrial efficiency, somewhat modified by her more psychological or affectionate nature, not only reduced the considerable expenses of her family but brought the children in as help, inventive and responsible help, not just expenses. Belles... makes it sound wonderful.

Some of Gilbreth's work, especially her first work, was on improving efficiency in the home. (Not the house: the home; is that an industrialist or a psychologist speaking?) She seems to have invented the 'work triangle' now understood by every simple kitchen design, on the grounds that walking far between every useful thing in the kitchen is exhausting. Her actual house must have been a big old place designed for a mass of servants, as well as children, and her redesign of the kitchen apparently worked, except that the one remaining jack-of-all-trades and bad cook hated change and insisted on putting it back as it had been. I'll probably never know if he was just cantankerous or whether there was some other efficiency that Gilbreth's redesign removed. Nor does she show wire models of movement diagrams, much less the seventeen-symbol chart with matching colors (violet hash for 'assemble', light violet H for 'disassemble', etc., for her own kitchen or any identified action. This book really couldn't have taught a homemaker to use industrial techniques on her housework, although the various timetable and reminder cards would have been useful - are likely the ancestors of daytimers and PDAs.

Since technology and feminism together made it imaginable that women could work for money without condemning their children to chilblains, rats, and food poisoning, there has been a constant, nittering, fifth column of women who make it their profession to tell other women to devote their every last erg to unpaid housework; Martha Stewart and Cheryl Mendelson, for instance. Much of their popularity and power comes from a near-solution to one of the open questions of feminism: of 'women's work', what is really useful (and, if useful, why unpaid?) and what is busywork (however glorified as sacrifice on altars of domesticity)?* Calling homemaking a science - and, for almost all women, an unprofessional and unpaid one - gives it lip service as feminism without demanding any money or time it didn't get before.

So I rummaged one of Gilbreth's early books out of deep storage at the public library; The Home-Maker and her Job, published in 1927 and chockablock with the '20s faith in psychology and progress. My judgement is still open; I quite like her definition of the goal of home life as 'happiness minutes', for everyone, and she defends the right to leisure, creativity, and usefulness of everyone. Some things that must have been shibboleths of 'good housekeeping' in her day (white covers on the beds & couches) come in for frequent questioning, on the grounds that almost everyone would rather be able to put their feet up without extra laundry than see a white coverlet. That's a sign of both reason and principle: grim modernizers assume that no-one should have a white coverlet: Gilbreth repeatedly reminds her reader to consider the actual costs and pleasures of everything in her house, and arrange it properly for their joint happiness, however peculiar.

All in all, Gilbreth is pretty traditional and apologetic in her calls for change - men & boys can like cooking, and shouldn't be prevented, but 'This book makes no appeal for "kitchen husbands" or "kitchen sons" or anything that the words imply.' It was 1927, though, so she may have been more radical than she sounds now.

There are a few things described as successes in her book that were embarassments to her children; when she lectured in one of their schools, she described the inefficiency of searching out a matching shirt-button, if you can move the collar button down to the gap & replace it with any button of the right size (since the collar button is covered with a tie - she's talking to grade-schoolers, and they're wearing ties). Her book describes all the students examining their own buttons and each other's, and seeing the justice of her arguments. Her children's book remembers the other students attempting to expose the Gilbreth boys' collar-buttons to mockery. The children also remember hiding this from their mother for a while, for fear that her feelings would be hurt.

* And, of course, who gets to decide, from a starting point in which the experience of the genders was so different that their honest preferences, democratically expressed, need not have much in common? So wrote clew in History (20th c.).

And thus wrote others:
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