Fifty Years Before Martha: Lillian Gilbreth Was the Original Mogul of Homekeeping
Ask anyone who the queen of homekeeping is, and I bet they’ll tell you it’s Martha Stewart without even a moment of hesitation—and they’re not wrong. But while Martha has ruled over this incredibly organized kingdom for the last 35 years, there was another mogul before her—a woman named Lillian Moller Gilbreth.
If Gilbreth doesn’t sound familiar to you, this might jog your memory: The book “Cheaper By the Dozen” — which also spawned a film in 1950, though the 2003 comedy and its sequel are mostly unrelated outside of making a few references to the original — was written by Gilbreth’s children and based on their lives—and yes, she really did have 12 children.
Born Lillian Moller in 1878, Gilbreth excelled from a young age. She went to the University of California at Berkeley, graduated with a degree in English literature, and became the first woman to give a commencement speech at the school. She later got her master’s degree at the university, and eventually went on to get a PhD in psychology from Brown University in 1915, making her the first in her field of industrial management to get a doctorate degree.
In between all her studies, Lillian met her husband, Frank Gilbreth, marrying him in 1904. Together, aside from their many children, they had a consulting firm called Gilbreth, Inc. where they specialized in time and motion study and researched fatigue study (AKA the precursor to ergonomics). Essentially, their goal was to improve and innovate workplaces to be more efficient—from both technical and psychological angles.
Despite the fact that Lillian was brilliant and well-educated — not to mention, clearly a total badass — as a woman in the early 1900s, she struggled with being taken seriously.
Despite the fact that Lillian was brilliant and well-educated — not to mention, clearly a total badass — as a woman in the early 1900s, she struggled with being taken seriously. She and her husband co-authored several books together, but publishers didn’t name her on the books because they were concerned about credibility—even though she was an expert with a doctorate degree and her husband, Frank hadn’t even attended college.
When Frank passed away from a heart attack in 1924, everything changed for Lillian. Aside from mourning and dealing with the obvious changes to her life, the loss of her partner affected her career, too — essentially, without Frank, Lillian was left to focus her work towards what was considered a more female-friendly sphere: domestic management, or homekeeping… despite the fact that housework was not her favorite thing and she often hired help.
Lillian was left to focus her work towards what was considered a more female-friendly sphere: domestic management, or homekeeping.
But, while focusing her career on the homekeeping sphere may not have been entirely Gilbreth’s choice, her genius still shined there, and for that we owe her a lot. Without her, we wouldn’t have shelves inside our refrigerator doors, foot pedestal trash cans or even wall light switches (seriously, she invented all of them and worked on improving and patenting many more household items like the can opener). Even modern kitchen layouts wouldn’t be the same without her—at one point, Lillian worked as an industrial engineer at General Electric, where she interviewed more than 4,000 women to ensure that fixtures and appliances were designed at the best height.
On top of all of that, Gilbreth gave lectures for years, taught courses and worked as a professor (the first female professor at Purdue, in fact!). She received 23 (twenty-three!) honorary degrees from several schools — including Princeton — and won numerous awards and accolades throughout her life. She was even the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Basically, Gilbreth did it all—and she did it efficiently, too.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth, described back in the 1940s as “a genius in the art of living,” passed away in 1972 at the age of 93 — a full decade before now-reigning homekeeping queen Martha Stewart’s first cookbook, “Entertaining,” was published. But she left us quite the legacy, didn’t she?