Thursday, September 20, 2007

Review: Cheaper by the Dozen

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

I appear to have merged the movies Cheaper by the Dozen (which I don't think I've seen) and Yours, Mine, and Ours in my brain - I thought the Gilbreths were the ones with 6 kids from each marriage. But nope, they had their very own dozen together.

Summary: Most people probably know the story - Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were motion study experts and they decided, early in their marriage, that they wanted a large family - an even dozen, if possible. The Gilbreths, especially Frank, used their family as a testing ground for their efficiency theories. This book covers the birth of all dozen, up until their father's death in 1924.

My thoughts: Huge families seem to be viewed as freak shows these days, things that get you your own show on TLC or Discovery Channel. And even at the turn of the last century, a dozen was a pretty big number. But the Gilbreths managed it, and without a lot of the modern conveniences we have today and seem to have managed quite happily.

I had a few mixed feelings about Mr. Gilbreth - he clearly loved his family and was very intelligent and fun-loving. But he also seemed to really enjoy embarrassing his wife and kids, a habit I always find really irritating. But his methods for making learning fun (teaching all the kids morse code by writing out clues with rewards, making room-sized diagrams of the solar system) were excellent and it's clear he placed a great value on education. The contributions he made to industry and the military are very impressive - he consulted for many large companies such as Remington typewriters and Lever Brothers.

The book is made up of great stories - everyone getting their tonsils out at once, summers spent at "The Shoe" their place in Nantucket (2 old lighthouses and a cottage), thinking any time mother was sick in bed it meant a baby was on the way. I think my favourite is the one about a woman from the national birth control society being sent as a joke by a neighbor (who had 8 kids of her own) to see Mrs. Gilbreth as a possible local chapter president.

It was an interesting read for an only child like me. I can barely imagine one sibling, let alone 11.

I thought it would be dated, taking place as it does in the early part of the 20th century, but it's really not, it feels very fresh. The only things that really date it are the actual current events of the day. And in fact, it gives a great example of the more things changing, the more they stay the same. Mr. Gilbreth rails against the older girls wanting to be popular at the start of the Jazz Age:

Popular. That's all I hear. That's the magic word, isn't it? That's what the matter with this generation. Nobody thinks about being smart, or clever, or sweet or even attractive. No, sir. They want to be skinny and flat-chested and popular. They'd sell their soul and body to be popular, and if you ask me a lot of them do.

Apart from the flat-chested part, isn't that pretty much what we hear about today's teenagers, who in polls often indicate they'd rather be famous rather than smart?

When I have a break in between challenges, I plan to read the sequel, Belles on their Toes, which is about how the family coped after Mr. Gilbreth's death. And I've got the 1950's version of the movie on my to-see list.


Kaza Kingsley said...

This was a favorite of mine growing up, probably because it was a favorite of my mother's when she was a kid! The movie was so dramatically different than the book - good but not even in the same ballpark. One of my favorite things is the feel of the past and the values that they lived with then, so different from ours. The father was kind of atrocious - yet you can really see how he was a great guy at the same time.
Thanks for putting this up!

Kaza Kingsley
Author of the Erec Rex series

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Thanks, Kaza! And thanks for dropping by. :)

That was how I felt about the dad, too. I'd be thinking how awful he was, but then I'd remember how he really did love the kids. I'm just glad he wasn't my dad! :)