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Biography - Lillian Gilbreth: A Revolutionary in the Home

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, America experienced rapid development in multiple societal realms. One could argue that no system was changed as drastically as the familial system. In this crucial couple of decades, the female role in the home particularly began to expand and become less traditional while the man’s role began to morph from merely the provider into the family man. The way in which the family operated, too, began to change. While most homemakers were practicing traditional methods of housekeeping efficiency, few revolutionaries sought a deeper understanding of the members of their family in order to increase efficiency. Of these revolutionaries, Lillian Gilbreth was notable. While most biographies, particularly Making Time, emphasized her work with efficiency and Taylorism, few attribute her success as a homemaker to her keen mind for psychology. Lillian Gilbreth emphasized personality analysis when delegating tasks in order to most efficiently utilize each family member’s strengths and weaknesses to accomplish tasks in the home. She believed that running her home based on what she found by studying her children’s personalities would not only improve efficiency when it came to day-to-day tasks, but it would also (and more importantly) improve the satisfaction experienced by each member of the household.

The idea of personality as a sector of psychology has attracted attention in the past century; in the past, psychologists tended to categorize people by their character, that is to say the nature of the internal qualities of an individual. [1] It wasn’t until the 1920’s with the coming of the Industrial Revolution that the idea of personality began to flower, reaching its full bloom as an accepted concept in the 1940’s. It took a revolutionary thinker by the name of Gordon Allport to challenge the ideology of character and suggest that there is more to a human being than his moral standing. Allport recognized that each person had a unique set of traits which encompassed his personality. These traits, he said, were “the aspect of human nature that makes a person distinctly human”.[2] He believed that the only way to truly understand a person was to perceive their uniqueness and respond to it accordingly with one’s own. As this idea gained acceptance amongst society, Gilbreth adapted it to the home. She believed that understanding the uniqueness of her twelve children and husband would not only help her delegate tasks to improve efficiency, but also improve the happiness of the family as a unit.

Lillian Gilbreth was always a spirited challenger of the norm. As a child, she nervously witnessed what a flawed family dynamic looked like; her parents’ relationship was often strained, as was the relationship between her parents and her grandparents, especially when her mother claimed to be ill. She struggled with anxiety, until one day when she decided that she deserved more out of life. Determined, she learned to control her emotions and rise above her family’s incohesion. Gilbreth decided that she was uncommonly bright, and therefore deserved a formal education. After graduating with honors as vice president of her class, she enrolled in University of California where she earned a master’s degree in literature. From there she received her Ph.D. in industrial psychology from Brown University.[3] With these two degrees she went on to teach, conduct research with her husband Frank involving ergonomics, and publish multiple works, including Psychology of Management and The Homemaker and Her Job. In addition to her impressive intellectual work, she successfully managed to raise twelve children and keep her household in order.

She experienced her prime decade of motherhood of her twelve children in the 1920’s, a decade in which the role of a woman in the household was rapidly changing; the housewife began to enjoy more political freedoms, equality of education, and relaxation of social norms in both the workplace and home. Gilbreth was a proponent of such change; she considered traditional methods of doing tasks in the home to be outdated and slow, particularly when technology was involved. Many women in the 1920’s feared modern homemaking technologies and questioned if they would produce the same quality product as their traditional methods. Gilbreth, on the other hand, mistrusted old traditions. In her words, “Any one who has been through modern laundries, bakeries, and preserving plants will find herself looking with suspicion on the unstandardized procedure of many a home”.[4] She enjoyed the convenience of modern methods of homemaking and believed firmly that ways of doing things can be changed without lowering standards.[5]

Gibreth was not a proponent of strict gender roles, particularly if they were less convenient for the family. “If a man,” she writes, “wishes to cook or perform some other household activity, if it gives him pleasure or allows him to relieve some one else who hates that particular work, he should be allowed to do it”.[6] Allowing men to perform tasks that were traditionally done by women would not only increase the efficiency of the household, but also improve the satisfaction of its members because the man performing the task would be free to perform a job he may enjoy, or at the very least he would relieve someone else the stress of doing it by taking her shift every so often. Either way, she believed the family unit would be happier without such stark gender lines and preoccupation with conventionality.

Gilbreth was different from most other homemakers of her time because her main focus was the happiness of the individual members of the family. While most mothers in the 1920’s prided themselves on the efficiency, cleanliness, and luxury, of their households, Gilbreth valued the aesthetic things of the home. She referred to homemaking as “house-keeping plus”, the plus being “the creativity and individuality expressed by each member, and what makes a happy home”.[7] Her idea of a perfect home included specified areas for all things necessary to human function, such as rest, creativity, work and study, and socialization. She noted that these areas could overlap – one son’s study area may happen to be where one daughter best relaxes. This is where her analysis of personality aided her; she wanted nothing more than for her family to feel free to express themselves, relax, and be creative when home, and in order to know how to design a home that allowed for such things, she would need to study each member of the family to understand what exactly it was that provided each of them that peace in order to provide an appropriate atmosphere to encourage it. Therefore, though a tidy home was desirable for creating an aesthetic atmosphere, cleanliness was not her first priority as it was for most women of her time – the individual happiness of each family member was her prime essential. Her mantra for homemaking was not, “Will it make my home more beautiful?” but rather “Will it make our memories happier?”[8]

That is not to say, however, that she placed no value in a clean home; every homemaker knows that cleanliness is much more aesthetically pleasing than filth. Gilbreth’s analysis of personality was most evident in this aspect of the household; she studied each member of the household to see which tasks he enjoyed, which he didn’t, and what could be done to make work more enjoyable for him.[9] She was a firm believer in apportioning jobs in the home as one apportions jobs in industry: according to the needs, abilities, and desires or the workers.[10] This not only increases efficiency, but improves the overall morale of the family.[11] At the very basic level, she took note of who enjoyed doing what tasks by understanding what personality traits he or she possessed that made him or her inclined to do the task.[12] For example, perhaps the daughter finds simple joy in baking, or the son finds reaffirmation of masculinity in repairing the mower. For whatever the reason, he or she should be allowed to do the chore that is most enjoyable, and if it is a he who happens to enjoy a task normally completed by a she, he should be allowed to do it. If a worker that enjoys the task cannot be found, the homemaker was then to ask herself what can be done to accommodate the worker to make the task more enjoyable. She then returns to the analysis of personality. Perhaps daughter Mary does not enjoy cleaning dishes because she is self-conscious about having dry hands. Perhaps son John does not enjoy folding laundry because he feels it is beneath him. No matter the reason for the displeasure, diagnosing the underlying cause will provide the solution. For example, perhaps Mary could be accommodated by supplying her with a pair of gloves, and perhaps John should be relieved of such work and given more responsibility elsewhere in the home, passing the chore of folding laundry to a younger member. Simply put, one must analyze the job to know the where and the how, and then the personality to know what variations must be made to meet the needs of the individual child.[13]

Gilbreth also believed that work should be made as creative and social as possible, so as to improve the overall satisfaction of the chores. For example, she who prepares the food should be given free rein to tweak the recipe if she so desires, or she who sews should feel free to be crafty with her work. Each member, Gilbreth notes, is creative in his or her own way, and when work is called creative activity, it is made worthwhile.[14] This reflects Allport’s rising psychological theory that the mature personality would live out the most creative pattern of life.[15] If the homemaker, therefore, created an atmosphere where members were encouraged to be creative, her home would foster growth of community and growth of self, while simultaneously completing efficient work. Ultimately, this was her dream: to foster an intimacy between all family members and to allow them the freedom to develop the traits and skills they most enjoyed. In her words, the household is about “proving to them [our children] that we learn by doing, proving that filling the time allotted to us with creating and achieving gives satisfaction and real happiness, making the most of them not as servants or masters, but partners, companions, fellow adventurers.”[16]

Jill Nelson

Works Cited
1. Pickren, Wade E., and Donald A. Dewsbury. Evolving Perspectives on the History of
Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002. Print. 328.
2. Ibid. 331.
3. Lancaster, Jane. “In Search of the Strenuous Life” in Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth--a
Life beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen" Boston: Northeastern UP, 2004. Print.
4. Gilbreth, Lillian Moller. The Home-Maker and Her Job. New York: D. Appleton and, 1927.
Print. 51.
5. Gilbreth, Lillian M., Mae Orpha. Thomas, and Eleanor Clymer. Management in the Home.
New York: Dodd Mead and, 1956. Print. 46.
6. Gilbreth, The Home-Maker and Her Job, 47.
7. Gilbreth, Lillian Moller. Living with Our Children. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1928. Print.
8. Gilbreth, Management in the Home, 47.
9. Gilbreth, The Home-Maker and Her Job, 40.
10. Gilbreth, Living with Our Children, 205.
11. Gilbreth, Management in the Home, 54.
12. Gilbreth, The Home-Maker and Her Job, 39.
13. Gilbreth, Living with Our Children, 151.
14. Ibid. 133.
15. Pricken and Dewsbury, Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology, 339.
16. Gilbreth, Living with our Children, xi.