“Belles on Their Toes”: A mother of 12 and an Industrial Engineering Expert. It’s the funniest 100 year old story that you don’t know you know.

Why I read Belles on Their Toes

Part 1: When you mess up your schedule during the COVID 19 quarantine


Well, y’all, it was bound to happen.  Earlier this week I felt that sinking feeling the pit of my stomach when I looked at my “post calendar”, from which I can tell at a glance where I am in the development of each post, and noticed that there was a BLANK SPOT for Friday, 22 May.  I had gotten ahead with my other posts to the point that I hadn’t looked at this week in a while, but there it was…I moved what I had scheduled for today, and never put anything in its place. 

Usually I work enough in advance that each post is ready a week before its due date, and before I am ready to write, I have to acquire the book or books, read it, draft, and then do my final post, which involved the layout, organization, and usually pulling in some other resources.  

By my self imposed rules as “a reader like you”, who wants the greatest financial value possible, I generally do not pay for individual books unless I find them at a library or tag sale. But the COVID 19 shutdowns have been putting added pressure on my system because the libraries are shut down, so I’m basically limited to books I can find online.

What to do?

I looked around my office, and I pulled out Lizzie Skurnik’s literary memoir Shelf Discovery.  I love this book partly because of her lively style, but also because Skurnik and I seemed to have been selecting pretty much the exact same books from the (tiny) Young Adult shelf at Waldenbooks in the 70’s and 80’s.  I already read most of the books she writes about, and most of them were books that I owned and have read so many times that I could probably do a reasonable job writing about them without rereading the book.

In short, Lizzie probably had some ideas for me. I hoped.

The Waldenbooks YA section in the 80’s. You can see by the size of this section why all the teen book nerds were pretty much reading the same thing. I think the library had their “YA” in a shoe box at that point. Click the image to read more about Waldenbooks.

The Waldenbooks YA section in the 80’s. You can see by the size of this section why all the teen book nerds were pretty much reading the same thing. I think the library had their “YA” in a shoe box at that point.

Click the image to read more about Waldenbooks.

As luck would have it, the book that I chose, Belles on Their Toes, is owned by my local library, and since most of Virginia (except for the counties near Washington, DC) have entered Phase 1 of reopening, my local public library reopened for curbside pick up starting Wednesday.  Monday they reopened their online system for holds placement, and by noon on Wednesday, they had the book I needed ready for pick up.  

It’s Thursday morning, 21st of May, and today my task is to get this post ready to go live by midnight.  Here we go. 

Part 2: When things are bad, it’s best to find a way to laugh


As I mentioned, I decided to choose Belles on Their Toes for this post after flipping through Shelf Discovery a few times.  When I choose a book for this category, YA (Young Adult) As you Feel, I look for books, whether new or old, that are published for the teen market that post teens will enjoy reading.   There are many great books in Shelf Discovery, and while they are all well written, many of them work for teens because they tell stories that are interesting to teens, but perhaps not that interesting for adults.  Thank goodness there are at least some issues that we get to leave behind in those years!

Anyway, I finally settled on Belles on Their Toes.  I was really happy when I read Shelf Discovery that Skurnik doesn’t go with Cheaper by the Dozen, which is far more well known than Belles on Their Toes

Cheaper by the Dozen, you might well know, is the story of a family of 12 kids centering on the father.  If you know the 2003 film with Steve Martin, that is probably about all you know about the book, because that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Yes, I enjoyed this movie. If you take it for what it is, it’s a cute comedy. But the there is so much more to the original story, and anyway, books are usually better, right? 

I’ll explain why below, but getting back to Belles on Their Toes, I have always particularly liked this book because it focuses more on the mom.  The book was written and published as a novel, but it is actually the story of a family of 11 children (one of the 12 they had died from an illness as a young child) whose a mom while she supports also pursues a career in industrial engineering. 

Now, even in 2020, the phrase “industrial engineering” combined with “mom” still probably gets your attention, but let me add this: the events in Belles on Their Toes took place nearly 100 years ago.  Belles on Their Toes covers the life of the Gilbreth family with a focus on the years 1924-1940. 

 This book, like Cheaper by the Dozen, literally makes me laugh out loud when I read it, and that’s why I enjoy it.  But I love it because of the woman at the head of the family and the family she grew.

Why You Should Read Belles on Their Toes

Cheaper By the Dozen and the huge joke that Steve Martin missed

If you haven’t read Cheaper by the Dozen, you might want to start with that.  Cheaper by the Dozen is a great book.  The really sad part about the films turning Steve Martin into a football coach, and not that there is anything wrong with that, is the fact that the whole joke of Cheaper by the Dozen is that the Gilbreth parents, both of them, were efficiency experts, or industrial engineers.  Their job was to study how people work and find ways to help them do it more efficiently, in large part by setting up their tools and workspaces in a way that reduced “wasted motion” and also by reducing human fatigue.  

Anyway, the joke in Cheaper by the Dozen is that this pair of efficiency experts had a family of 12 kids that they, particularly the father, raised using his principals of efficiency. 

While we don’t see industrial engineers in the news too often these days, the Gilbreths’ work was really cutting edge. They used motion pictures (a very new technology then) to study human movement and devised devices (such as a lighted ring) and a special symbolic language called Therbligs (Gilbreth backwards) to track and record them. So the Gilbreths sometimes used their large family as human interest to create publicity…to the chagrin of the kids. Naturally enough, they also used their kids as “built in” guinea pigs to and their home as a laboratory…including, I kid you not, taking videos of his kids having tonsillectomies to study operating room technique.

And of course there is the joke that having 12 kids might not be that efficient. Depends on your perspective, but still. And in the real family (unlike the Martin film), there were no multiple births, which of course, would have been efficient.

Frank Gilbreth Sr. had several reasons for running the family the way he did, but of course, it was definitely his natural inclination.

 So then the flip side is the question of whether the combination of such a large family and being raised by efficiency experts had the effect of turning them into “weird kids”, and in Cheaper by the Dozen, there are descriptions of psychologists studying the family (Lillian Gilbreth also had a background in psychology)…you know, the type who WANT to find something weird?  At times, the Gilbreths were tempted to give it to them.

Cheaper and Belles: Authorship and Style

Both Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes were written by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Gilbreth Jr. about their parents, Lillian Moller Gilbreth and Frank Gilbreth Sr.

The great thing about the way Ernestine and Frank Jr. tell the story is their eye for detail and their ability to describe them. The characters absolutely jump off the page.

Cheaper by the Dozen is highly episodic: the story isn’t told in strict chronological order but focuses more on themes, some of which are revisited in Belles.

Belles is a little more chronological because Ernestine and Frank were older, I’m guessing, and played more central roles in the action.

The theme of the first book is the importance of efficiency and making the best use of “unavoidable delay” (such as one’s personal hygiene) and to a lesser degree, economy. In the second book, the importance of economy is a bit more important as the the family initially has to work through some business setbacks.

Either way, both books are hilarious although Cheaper might be a bit much for some people in 2020. You definitely need to take it in the context of its times. In 2020, Frank Gilbreth would have been considered, at best, guilty of child endangerment at times. Luckily, he had Lillian there to rein him in.

If you truly know nothing about Cheaper by the Dozen and want to read it, continue on through the Gilbreth films and then stop. 

In order to go on with this article, I have to put in a huge spoiler, so come back after you’ve read Cheaper by the Dozen.

There was also a film made in 1950 based more closely on the book if you prefer that.

Industrial Engineering: what the heck is it?

If you stop and take a look around your workspace or home right now, you will see many things that actually came from Gilbreth inventions.  Do you have a “work triangle” in your kitchen, meaning that your stove, sink, and refrigerator are in a rough triangle? Lillian Gilbreth invented that.

Where do you keep your dishes in your kitchen?  I keep mine in the cabinet over my dishwasher, which is also conveniently located between my breakfast bar and kitchen table.  If you have a particular way you do it, that is your “industrial engineering” in your home. 

Video Footage Mentioned in Cheaper by the Dozen

These two clips form a “greatest hits” reel made by Frank Gilbreth of the extensive footage that he made, but you will see the actual films described in Cheaper and in some cases, footage of techniques that Frank Sr. literally used his family to develop.

There is also some footage of the entire family.

You can see the techniques the Gilbreths designed to track the movements of individual workers…again, their results seem so obvious to us today it’s hard to believe that things weren’t always done the way we do them!

I suppose prior to industrialization, many people did different small jobs throughout the day rather than doing one thing over and over. So probably that something that was only going to be done for a few minutes wasn’t that uncomfortable, or you wouldn’t save much time by setting up a good workstation, but with people doing the same tasks for hours on end, priorities changed.


Spoiler Alert

STOP if you don’t want to know the spoiler before you read Cheaper by the Dozen

Spoiler alert.  Last chance. If you go on, don’t come crying to me because I warned you.

As great as Cheaper by the Dozen is, Belles on Their Toes is Better

 Ok, so if you’re still here or back, you are ready to hear about Belles on Their Toes.  As you know or don’t mind knowing, at the end of Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank Gilbreth passes away suddenly leaving his wife and 11 kids, who ranged in age from 2 to 18.

The Realities of the Gilbreth’s Situation: How bad is it?

If you’ve read Cheaper by the Dozen, you know by now that the Gilbreths knew that Frank had a bad heart, but they made the conscious decision to complete their planned family anyway (yup, they planned to have 12).

In reality, however, the order in the family’s home life was partly devised by Frank Gilbreth to help his wife, Lillian, if he were to die early.

So the kids were organized, with older kids in the habit of watching younger ones, and they all helped out with household chores and generally keeping things running. Frank (ironically, not Lillian so much) organized every aspect of the house hold to keep things running smoothly in the absence of one or both parents.

But he also instituted a system of “family meetings”, much like you would run a business with a board of directors, with the result that the kids all knew what things cost, what needed to be done, and how to make good decisions.

When Frank Sr. died, Frank and Lillian’s company was doing well, but they didn’t have family money to fall back on, and the money they did have left after taking care of their family had mostly been invested in the business.

When Frank died, as far as most of their clients were concerned, especially their big ones, the business was dead too, and they disappeared.

Part of the problem was that Lillian had never gotten the recognition she should have, but on the other hand, perhaps that wasn’t seen as necessary at the time: a woman supporting her husband in business would have been seen almost as the same thing as his doing it alone because the wife was still almost seen as literally part of the husband.

At the beginning of the book, the primary conflict is presented as being whether the family can stay in their home and whether Lillian could support them, but just as a reality check, their circumstances weren’t actually that dire.

Still, the family would not have been solvent long term without making some hard choices, which boiled down to the following:

1.     Find a way to support themselves, with the most obvious way to continue the business in which Lillian was already a partner in a field in which she had a doctorate.

2.     Sell their home in Montclair, NJ and move to California and live with Lillian’s wealthy family. Lillian’s family would have welcomed them with open arms too…they are depicted in Cheaper as very kind and loving people although their lifestyle was considerably different from the Gilbreth family.

3.     Break up the family and allow some of the children to be adopted by friends. 

Probably for most people in 1924, either number two or three would have seemed to be the obvious choices. 

I don’t think adopting out children after the death of a parent was particularly unusual.  I have relatives in my own family who were (now deceased) biological sisters adopted by my relative after their father died because their mother couldn’t both support and care for them.  This arrangement was done privately; the families met each other through word of mouth, and the adoptees maintained connections with their biological family throughout their lives.  The adoption I’m thinking of happened several decades after these events.

You certainly see these arrangements in many novels from the late 19th and early 20th century: see The Lois Level on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Also, it doesn’t seem that Lillian Gilbreth would have had to give up her career if she moved in with her family.  While her family was wealthy, her father, like her husband, appeared to have been a “self made” man and business owner, and its clear from the description an en masse Gilbreth family visit in Cheaper that they were VERY accommodating.  Lillian had actually convinced her father, who didn’t think she needed a college education, to give her a year of college, which got extended into a full, four year bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and the work and dissertation for a doctorate, most of it before she met Frank. 

At the end of Cheaper, Lillian asks her kids if they want to go to California, and she admits to them that their lives would be easier there. 

So the reality is that she could probably have moved to California, had help with her kids and even more time to pursue her career interests.  But she also wouldn’t have had her own household, and her children, who (again based on the chapter in Cheaper) would have been considerably more pampered and definitely would not have grown into the people they became. 

Anyway, the bottom line is that Lillian Gilbreth appears to kept her family together in Montclair and grew the company she started with her husband mainly because she wanted to, and her kids did too.  

On top of that, she also made enough money through her business to send all 11 kids to the universities of their choice at a time when very few people, male or female, had any college degree.

But Belles isn’t just a survival story. In fact, for the reasons I explained, it’s barely that. The kids are definitely invested in keeping the family together, but in fact Lillian quickly sees that they will go so far beyond her expectations to save money that in the end, it’a minor issue.

It begins with the summer after Frank Sr. dies: Lillian decides to accept an invitation to stand in for him at a major conference in Europe to establish her solo career, so she leaves within days of the funeral. The 11 children, with 18 year old Anne in charge, promptly come down en masse with the Chicken Pox but recover, without telling their mom they are sick, pack up the family and head to their cottage by the shore for the summer.

Most of the book focuses on the older kids’ (hilarious) strategies to run the household while also staying in school, while Lillian figures out gender acceptable ways to continue her career and support the family.

Yet Lillian clearly remains the spiritual center of the family even though each of the children, in turn as their elders leave for college, handily take over household responsibilities.

And when it’s time to go, each goes. There’s no undo sacrifice, and everyone gets a college education, which from the beginning was a goal for Frank Sr. and Lillian.

I hope you don’t think I’ve given away too much, but the fact is that this story is not about what happens, but how they get there.

Belles on Your Toes is a story about making your own life, your way. Which is what Lillian Gilbreth did from the beginning.

And that’s why I love it.

That’s funny is almost a bonus, but a welcome one.

Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

Lillian Gilbreth, the Person and Engineering Pioneer

 While the book Cheaper and most definitely the first film makes it seem as though Lillian Gilbreth was primarily a housewife who had gotten pulled into her husband’s profession, the truth is that Gilbreth was already interested in the field of motion study before she met Frank Gilbreth.

And she had already been pushed back several times. 

She had to petition her own (wealthy) father to let her start university. 

She wasn’t allowed to pursue her field of choice in university because of her gender. 

During her partnership with her husband, her name was sometimes omitted from their collaborations.

To try to save their business, she boarded a ship to Europe within days of her husband’s death, and she left her children in the care of her oldest daughter (at 18) and the family caretaker/handyman.

Even though she actually didn’t cook or keep house very much because she had always worked, she had to make her name as an individual by becoming an expert on efficiency in the home.

She had to draw on that other female standby, education, as well. She took a gamble that while companies might not let her come in to consult, they would trust her to teach their own employees what she knew, and that paid off.

First, she made money from her fees (and ran the school from her home), and second, over time, her “graduates” did call her to consult.

She did go back into other industries to work, but personally, I am grateful for what she did for homes and kitchens. She even wrote a book on increasing efficiency in schools, and believe me, teachers become burdened with more expectations and fewer pay raises each year…they need it.

She also helped get disabled people into the workplace with equipment she developed, among other things.

She worked in her field until she was in her late 80’s. 

Belles on Their Toes is a hilarious story about a family you will want to hang out with, but it is also the tip of the iceberg of a story about not only an exceptional family, but an exceptional woman, who paved the way for women who are still coming behind her. 

With all the focus on STEM education these days, I don’t know why everyone isn’t required to learn about BOTH of the Gilbreths.

Understanding Gibreth’s Work

Domestic Science and Kitchens

As mentioned, Lillian Gilbreth first made her name as an expert on efficiency in the home even though she really wasn’t that domestic.

Keep in mind that up until the 1920’s or so, cooking the family meals really took a large portion of the day because everything had to be done by hand, and in some cases, you started with an animal in the field rather than a package from the grocery store!

Even if you didn’t have to butcher your meat yourself, shopping had to be done more frequently, and there were no mixes and little, if any, prepared food…again, unless you had done it yourself by canning or later, freezing (I remember my grandma freezing her produce from her large garden).

To give you an idea of the differences, in Belles on Their Toes, the Gilbreths point out that the kitchen in their own home had been designed (by its builder, not the Gilbreths) to accommodate “3 or 4 servants” (101), which is what would have been needed to prepare food for a household as large as the home was designed to hold.

If the family didn’t have servants, they probably usually had the same number of family members engaged with food preparation: think mom, maybe grandma, and a couple of older children. And I guess that’s if you still had someone around to help with the littles, or they would be in there too.

As time went on, however, more and more appliances were available, along with prepared food, which meant that fewer servants were needed. And of course fewer people lived on farms or in multigenerational households too.

But then suddenly there was a new problem: the old kitchen set up didn’t work very well for one person.

And I suppose, ironically, while there was more specialization in the workplace, there was less at home. A woman who might prefer baking, for example, now had to prepare the entire meal.

Also, “scientific” home management was a big thing. I suppose more women had more formal education, so working as a housewife needed to sound good to make women happy with that.

So as you can see, the availability of additional information added to changes in industry and home life set the stage for the Gilbreths’ work.

Changes in kitchens are a good example of the benefits of the Gilbreths’ work because nearly everyone has used one at some point in life!

But the modern kitchen, is so ubiquitous that you might not realize that they weren’t always that way, so I’ve found you some examples.

There are a lot of photos online taken to show living conditions of miner’s families living in company housing during 1930’s and 1940’s by U.S. government officials, so I went through those to find some good examples of what women struggled with.

Some of the homes/kitchens in the photos are really awful; the families were eating in kitchens that barely looked fit for animal habitation, let alone human, and certainly not anywhere you would want to eat.

The kitchen below, however, is obviously nice and clean, with up to date appliances, but can you imagine trying to cook in there? To me, it barely looks like a kitchen: it’s more like a dining room with appliances in the corners. While it isn’t too big to navigate comfortably, I would find it really frustrating to try to make a meal in there. Note: I think the appliance under the window is a small cooker of some type.

Mrs. Doy Edwards, wife of miner, in kitchen of her home in company housing project. Christopher Coal Company, Christopher #3 Mine, (Formerly Robinson Run #2) Osage, Monongalia County, West Virginia. 14 June 1946 Russell Lee / Public domain

Mrs. Doy Edwards, wife of miner, in kitchen of her home in company housing project. Christopher Coal Company, Christopher #3 Mine, (Formerly Robinson Run #2) Osage, Monongalia County, West Virginia.14 June 1946

Russell Lee / Public domain

You can see the inefficiency of this otherwise attractive kitchen. Note the inside of the refrigerator door; Lillian Gilbreth was credited with inventing both the shelves and the butter holder you probably have in yours.

Department of the Interior. Solid Fuels Administration For War. (04/19/1943 - 06/30/1947) Mrs. Gonzalla Sullivan, wife of miner, in kitchen of her home in company housing project. Koppers Coal Division, Federal #1 Mine, Grant Town, Marion County, West Virginia. 13 June 1946. Russell Lee / Public domain

Department of the Interior. Solid Fuels Administration For War. (04/19/1943 – 06/30/1947)Mrs. Gonzalla Sullivan, wife of miner, in kitchen of her home in company housing project. Koppers Coal Division, Federal #1 Mine, Grant Town, Marion County, West Virginia. 13 June 1946.

Russell Lee / Public domain

This image, in contrast, shows a kitchen that Lillian Gilbreth designed in 1934, more than 10 years before the above pictures were taken.

You might also notice little difference between this space and the in the kitchen in your house, other than the appliances.

That is what Lillian Gilbreth, the non cook, did for home cooking, who were then almost always women.

Kitchen inside "America's Little House"designed by Lillian Gilbreth for the New York Herald-Tribune Institute. Gilbrethnetwork/tripod.com

Kitchen inside “America’s Little House”designed by Lillian Gilbreth for the New York Herald-Tribune Institute. Gilbrethnetwork/tripod.com

Lillian Gilbreth is not mentioned directly in this video made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, below, to show farming families how to redesign their kitchens and the careful work that went into planning, but you can infer her influene. Frankly, I’m obsessed. This kitchen is better designed than mine!

This children’s biography of Lillian Gilbreth focuses on her work with kitchens.

Eliminating Waste in Teaching

While never working as a teacher in a school, Dr. Gilbreth earned enough education credits as an undergraduate to get her teacher’s license, and she wrote her doctoral dissertation on teaching.

In all my years of teaching…and my Ph.D. in education…and I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything about making the job more efficient…what a breath of fresh air!

Biography and more

Lillian Gilbreth wrote her own story, but this book is out of print and a bit hard to find.

Frank Jr. also wrote a third volume about the family (and a fourth about their ancestors), but this one is also out of print. Keep a look out though…more and more books are being digitized.

Making Time is the most recent of the several full biographies that have been written about Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

And finally, you can see and hear Lillian Gilbreth, aka The Mother of Industrial Engineering, in the biographical short from Purdue University, where she taught for many years.


You Tell Us

How do you feel about what happened to Lillian Gilbreth?

Would you ever try any of the things she did?