When the Circus Comes to Town

Cheaper by the Dozen
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth

Some folks say making sure your kids grow up with a firm moral center is a parent’s primary job. My mom would’ve said it’s their only job.

Mom ran a tight ship, behaviorally speaking. Popular culture was particularly suspect and, though we did consume our fair share, the endless reruns of older movies on New York‘s three independent TV stations pretty much guaranteed that the balance would be tipped in favor of films that had not earned the wrath of the Legion of Decency.

Once I gained a library card that allowed me to borrow on the adult side, a new set of restrictions emerged. I was strongly encouraged to read the books those old movies were based on, the better to see the ways in which the filmmakers had changed things. At least that was the stated reason. I’m pretty sure there was a fear–which turned out to be well-grounded–I’d soon be found dabbling in the greater and lesser works listed in the Index.

The first edition of this book I ever bought. Total spent on both copies: 85 cents. I am the Ward of Cheap.

So this is not my first encounter with this book, a quite familiar sentence lately. I can never be sure why I pick up a given title at any time. In this case, I was either desperately needing something light in the face of great stress or I was just missing Mom. If you think about it, those are not unrelated things.

What, then, of this artifact of mid-century America? To call it a period piece would be unkind, even as it papers over the book’s defects. Labelled a ‘semi-biographical novel‘ (whatever that is) by the contributors of Wikipedia, the book is credited to siblings: Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr and his sister Ernestine Carey. It chronicles, in no particular order, some adventures shared by the two with their ten brothers and sisters and their parents, Frank and Liliann.

The appeal of the story, I think, is the size of the family and the time in which it occurs. There’s a real sense of ‘look at how we used to live’ even as there’s quite a bit that’s recognizably the accoutrement of the American upper and upper middle classes. Nostalgia sells, it just doesn’t age especially well.

Make no mistake, though, despite the size of the brood the Gilbreths were not some working class or agricultural clan. They were, in fact, exemplars of the emerging technocratic class that’s earned the suspicions it currently finds itself under.

Liliann Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) and Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1868-1924)

In some ways they were ahead of their time. The Gilbreths ran a husband-wife consultancy focused on time motion studies. Frank Gilbreth is often described as an engineer, and the Mechanicals and Industrials seem to both want to claim him as their own. In reality, he was a self-taught efficiency expert, to use the vernacular.

The authors are actually quite clear about this and never allow credential inflation to enter their descriptions of how their father’s fieldwork was alcehmized into an entire field of practice.

Much of the credit for that alchemy deservedly belongs to his wife. A product of a large family herself, Moller was reared in California and, after a series of interrupted matriculations, eventually earned her PhD from Brown University. That credential was in applied psychology and, depending on the source, you  may find her described as one of the first industrial engineers or the first industrial/organizational psychologist.

If you ask me, though, what they were among the first of was self-promoters. Even this book, though written by the offspring, is part of that campaign. Here you’ll find Dad, a successful, larger than life (in all senses: Gilbreth was sized like William Howard Taft)  genius of the new industrial order. At his side, Mom, a steady, loving force of her own who rarely goes along with the stated program but doesn’t fight it either.

Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy (and brood) in the 1950 film version of the book.

That behavior must have been an asset since during Frank’s lifetime (he died abruptly at age 56) he burned one bridge after another. Time motion studies, billed as an improvement on Frederick Taylor‘s stopwatch methods, were not always welcome–sometimes less by lower level managers than by workers–and haven’t really stood up to scrutiny over time. For all their self-regard, the Gilbreths were far less important than W. Edwards. Deming. Nonetheless, Lillian spent the years after Frank’s death building the business and repairing their joint reputation.

You can get a flavor of the work, professional rivalries and methods from this book excerpt. Such technical detail is not for our authors. Instead the family is the focus. And with 12 kids you can imagine the possibilities.

Even going to the movies is a big deal. Put this in perspective: the Gilbreths piled 12 kids into a Pierce Arrow, dubbed ‘Foolish Carriage,’ when they went to a silent film. But, they had a phone, a home office, a darkroom–they even did surgery in the dining room (attempting a time motion study of medicine). It is recognizable and alien all at once.

It’s easy to lampoon the Gilbreths and there’s a huge tome lying around here that may provide that opportunity. But for all the faults left out of the book, the positives are worth pondering. A man with a quick temper who fancied himself a stern taskmaster, he had a soft heart and a real ability to laugh at himself. He was forever creating learning opportunities for his children from teaching Morse code to French to proper dinner table conversation. All projects I could get behind.

The Gilbreth house in Montclair today. It last sold for.almost $3MM. No doubt about it, these were well-off people.

It’s what a friend would term the ‘unfortunate’ items that stick out and show how far we’ve come from both the publication date (1948) and the time being written about. Mrs. Gilbreth refers to undesirable language and behavior with a unique adjective: Eskimo. As in, “We don’t use Eskimo language in this house.” And then there’s Dad doing blackface without the make-up.

Such things are real. Better, I think, to recognize them as things we’ve moved on from. Obviously offensiveness  never crossed anyone’s minds, even at mid-century. Not just the authors and their parents but the editors, reviewers and studio executives.

The version I read was a commemorative edition bearing the logo of the Montclair public library (the Gilbreths lived in Montclair as well as Providence). Nowadays it’s a community known for its urban sensibilities, famously the Park Slope of New Jersey, hardly a place to put boosterism before correctness.

Some things in the book made me  cringe; it’s the cringe, I think, that is the mark of slow but steady progress.




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