Tis the season to bake with Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Gilbreth

from Amazon.com

from Amazon.com

Dates: May 24, 1878 to January 2, 1972

Field of study: Ergonomics, industrial/organizational psychologist

Invention: Kitchen design, electric food mixer, shelves in refrigerator, trash can with foot-pedal lid-opener

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen this time of the year, but I never give much thought to it. We’ll that’s not exactly true, I think about buying new appliances but not the layout how it came to be, why and who decided it should be this way. Today I’m sharing with you Lillian Gilbreth, the Mother of Modern Management and the woman behind our kitchens. In the 1920’s she was a pioneer in making domestic work a field of study. One of her greatest accomplishments was cutting the number of footsteps in the kitchen from 281 to 45! Two of her twelve children, co-authored a book about their home growing-up maybe you’ve heard of it “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Lillian Gilbreth was born and raised in Oakland, California into a large wealthy family in 1878. Her parents believed in education for their daughters up to secondary school after that it was expected that they would marry. However Lillian didn’t have her parents’ confidence that someone would marry her, so she decided to become a teacher.  She studied at University of California Berkeley where she graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in literature. After graduation she moved to New York where she attended Columbia University for a year before returning home to finish her Master of Arts at University of California Berkeley.  She completed her Ph.D in psychology from Brown University in 1915. She met her husband Frank Gilbreth before she left on summer vacation to Europe.

By utilizing new techniques and working with their family Frank and Lillian Gilbreth created a new field of science called ergonomics and industrial psychology. Today the International Ergonomics Association defines it as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.” But back then there was no definition or defined field, instead Lillian and Frank pioneered their field through trial, error and demonstrating the benefits. Lillian was introduced to the idea of finding “the best way” to do things by Frank who had begun his studies years before. It was also Frank’s encouragement which caused Lillian to change her major from English to psychology. In their partnership, Lillian was the advocate and promoted the human side of the worker while Frank was the technical side.  In their consulting firm, they were the first to use short films to watch how industrial processes and office tasks were done, breaking them down into components parts.  The Gilbreth’s  worked from home conducting trainings for managers and develop practices with the aid of their children. Frank and Lillian consulted for industry, lectured and wrote for national publications and published 5 books on organizational management, none of which bore Lillian’s name.

frank and lillian from purdue university engineeringAfter Frank’s unexpected death in 1924, Lillian was forced to reinvent herself.  She took a visiting lecturer position at Purdue University and several years later was given a faculty position in the home economics department, which is ironic because she wasn’t a cook. The home economics department allowed her the opportunity to create a new niche for herself where she could apply the technical skills she learned from Frank and her humanist approach to improving the lives of women.  She consulted for Macys and General Electric, wrote several articles for national publications, guest lectured, conducted training session out of her home and patented several household appliances.

After reviewing all of Lillian’s contributions I find her contributions to the home to be the most revolutionary. Lillian patented several home appliances and designed the contemporary kitchen. After an in depth investigation into the amount of walking that a woman does in the kitchen Lillian redesigned it to create a tight circuit where the cook wouldn’t need to move their feet as frequently. Lillian’s concept was that “In an efficiently planned kitchen, the perimeter of the triangle formed by stove, sink, and refrigerator should be no greater than 26 feet, with a typical distance of 5.5 feet between appliances.”(Slate) This design was and still is called the L, C, or U Shape arrangement. She also designed a kitchen for handicapped people. She patented the electric food mixer, shelves in the refrigerator and the foot-pedal lid-opened trash can.

Lillian Gilbreth was an accomplished woman by any standards and her accomplishments are still relevant today. She was the first person to show industry management the importance of direct and indirect incentives to motivate employees, something that I think we are all grateful for, by studying the psychology of workers at work.  She was also able to identify how detrimental the effects of fatigue and stress are on time management.  By combining the technical knowledge she learned from her late husband, Frank, with her own understanding of the psychology of women, she did more than just the improve the kitchen, she advocated for the improvement of the lives of women and people with disabilities.

If you want to learn more about Lillian there are numerous options. There are several autobiographies and biographies about her

Local Input~ A model kitchen created by Lillian Gilbreth for optimum efficiency.

Local Input~ A model kitchen created by Lillian Gilbreth for optimum efficiency.

available. Plus there are several websites, which I have listed below each tells a slightly different story about her accomplishments. You should also check out the interview with Historian, Jane Lancaster over at The Lemelson Center for the study of Invention and Innovation. Also, I have listed a couple of website and a blog post about Lillian Gilbreth.



Bailey, Martha J. American Women in Science A Biographical Dictionary. Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1994. Print   132-133

There are number of books about Lillian Gilbreth and her work.




“The Woman Who Invented the Kitchen” Alexandra Lange http://www.slate.com/articles/life/design/2012/10/lillian_gilbreth_s_kitchen_practical_how_it_reinvented_the_modern_kitchen.2.html



Grandma Got STEM http://ggstem.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/lillian-gilbreth/


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