One fantastic woman

Lillian with Girl Scouts in Wisconsin in 1949. By this time she was no longer on the board but still every involved. No mention whether any of her five daughters were Girl Scouts.
Lillian with Girl Scouts in Wisconsin in 1949. By this time she was no longer on the board but still every involved. 

Why don’t we know more about her? Why isn’t Girl Scouts making a big fuss over her? Who you ask? Lillian Gilbreth.  If you’ve read Cheaper by the Dozen or seen the original movie (not that useless remake from a few years ago) you know she was the mother of the bunch. In the book she was just, well, the mom, who put up with all her husband’s madness. I wanted to read more about the family because the book title referred to a dozen kids but they stopped mentioning one daughter shortly into it and appeared to only have 11 kids and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It turns out their second child, a daughter named Mary, died from diphtheria when she was five. The family never spoke of her again. I think that was pretty common back then.

Frank, the husband, was a motion studies specialist. He went into places like factories, studied how they did things and then found ways to reduce motions, save time, increase productivity and have workers be less tired at the end of the day. He didn’t think you should be so exhausted at the end of the day you could barely drag yourself home. It was early study into ergonomics although at the time they called it fatigue elimination. He was the one who came up with the idea for surgeons to have an assistant hand over the tools. By the time the doctor turned, put a tool down, located the next one and picked it up, a lot of time had been wasted. He cut some surgery times by as much as 2/3, which reduced deaths due to being under anesthetic too long. Lillian worked with him on all of this and continued his work after he died fairly young. All while raising 11 kids!

Lillian graduated from UC Berkley in 1904 and spoke at graduation. She was the first woman to speak at a Berkley graduation. She went on to get a ph.d. in psychology (after she married and had a few kids). She was the first female to receive an honorary ph.d. (in engineering) from any US university. She was the first female honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (becoming a full member later) and the first female member of the American Society of Industrial Engineers. She was a full professor at four universities, including one in the Philippines. And if your fridge is in your kitchen and your washing machine drains itself, you have Lillian to thank for that. The old ice boxes were near the back door to accommodate the ice delivery guy. She suggested putting fridges in the kitchen to accommodate the cook (fancy that!) and designed the inside to be more efficient since the whole thing was the same temperature. Ice boxes were colder on the bottom since that’s where the ice was. The first electric washing machines had to be drained with buckets and she suggested a small pump and hose to do that job. Lillian said if it saved a housewife 20 minutes, it was worth it. She also designed the modern kitchen and a kitchen for heart patients for the American Heart Association.

So what has all this to do with Girl Scouts? She was on the Girl Scout national board. The Gilbreths were good friends with Herbert and Lou Hoover as he was an engineer before becoming president. As First Lady, Lou was very involved in Girl Scouts. I think there’s a camp named after her. Frank died before Hoover was elected but Lillian remained friends with them and stayed at the White House a lot. FL Lou convinced her to serve on the Girl Scout national board, which she did for about six years. I would love to know what she did for Girl Scouts as her profession was being an efficiency expert. And I wonder what she’d have to say about today’s Girl Scout organization!

Lillian was big news at the time. Everyone made a fuss over how she had a career and a family. If women worked at all, they usually quit when they got married. The US Postal Service thought enough of her to give her a stamp. She worked full-time traveling around giving presentations until she was 90.

This stamp was part of a Great Americans series.
This stamp was part of a Great Americans series.

If you’d like to read about Lillian, her oldest son, Frank Gilbreth, Jr., wrote a great book called Time Out for Happiness.  It’s out of print but I found it at the library. There is also a biography on Lillian called Making Time, by Jane Lancaster. I just ran across “Lillian Gilbreth: Defining Domesticity” on Amazon. It looks to be very good, too, and is in print and the Kindle.

It’s a real shame her name doesn’t come up in studies of great American women. She led a truly remarkable life. And did it while raising 11 children! Her youngest was only two when her husband died so she did a lot of it on her own.




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