A while ago I reread Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes. I loved both of those books growing up and have read them several times, although not in quite a while. When I was looking up something or other about the Gilbreths in the process of writing the review for those books, I found out that Frank Jr., who coauthored the above books with his sister (Ernestine Gilbreth Carey), also wrote what was more of a “straight” biography of his parents, Time Out for Happiness. I couldn’t find a reasonably-priced copy secondhand, so I had to settle for checking it out of the library, although I’m still keeping an eye out for a copy of my own.
While the other two books are more of a collection of vignettes of their life growing up, Time Out for Happiness takes more time to look at the background and work of Frank Gilbreth, Sr., and his wife, Lillian. There was a lot of genuinely interesting information here about the work and studies of the Gilbreths, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It isn’t as funny or lighthearted as the earlier two books, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.
My reservations about this book – for one, Frank Jr. spends what felt like way too much time on his family heritage (did we really need to hear about his great-great-grandparents in order to understand how his parents ended up as the people they were?) in the earlier part of the book, which meant that there wasn’t as much time at the end of the book for the work that Lillian did after Frank Sr.’s death. While Lillian’s work is somewhat covered, it felt like the book was unbalanced.
There is also a decent chunk of book devoted to a feud between the Gilbreths and another engineer, whose name I can’t remember. It’s obvious that at the time of Frank Jr.’s writing this was a really important situation – it honestly felt like, in some ways, the point of his book was to refute some of the claims made by the other group. But since I didn’t really know the background of this situation, it wasn’t particularly interesting to me other than the general motion study information that came along with it.
However, the entire book is written with such obvious, warm affection that I was willing to forgive its small irritants. Frank Jr. has such a respect for his parents and their work. Throughout he emphasized how a huge part of what made the Gilbreths do the research that they did was from respect for the worker, and a desire to make the life of the everyday worker easier, better, and more fulfilling. (This was also a big part of the feud with the other group, which believed that the time being “saved” should belong to company, i.e. be used to make the worker work harder/longer.) After Frank Sr.’s death, Lillian continued to pioneer motion study. With many door closed to her because of her sex, she was more than willing to focus her efforts where they were appreciated – assessing the way equipment and machinery could be used within a house to improve the lives of housewives, and also researching ways to enable individuals with disabilities (especially amputees from World War I) to still earn a living.
If you liked Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, but wished you could learn a little more about the “real life” behind the stories, this book is definitely worth a read. Lillian also wrote a few books of her own, so I am hoping to get to those eventually as well, to continue learning about this fascinating couple and their work.