Book Review of Cheaper by the Dozen

Published: 2021-09-29 20:10:05
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The autobiographical book Cheaper by the Dozen was written in 1949. Since then, it has been reprinted numerous times, most recently in 2003. The book, written by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, two of the twelve children of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, is about Frank Jr. and Ernestine's recollections of growing up, in the company of ten other siblings and two high-powered engineers as parents, in a huge house in Montclair, New Jersey, around the turn of the 20th century.
Much of the humor within this book is because the father of this huge family, Frank, is a good-hearted man who loves his twelve children and their antics, but is also an engineer (as is his wife Lillian) by profession, and an "efficiency expert". Frank Sr. likes to believe problems and conflicts can be solved in a sort of mechanical way, and sometimes with just one quick solution for every problem (at least that is his theory). Many funny and ironic situations arise from this questionable premise. Still, as the authors of Cheaper by the Dozen recall, "Dad was happiest in a crowd, especially a crowd of kids" (p. ).
But since, as an engineer, Frank Sr. owns a scientific management company, he continually tries to apply his various principles of "scientific management" at home, with mixed results. In one incident, he does so by taking motion pictures of his children washing dishes and doing other household chores, which he calls "motion study" (p. 3) in order to study their efficiency at these tasks (or the lack thereof), and then hopefully apply what he has learned from these homemade "motion studies" to other workplace situations.

Frank Sr. lso has each of his twelve children chart their weights and other progress each day, on a "progress and weight chart" (p. 3) he has put up on the bathroom wall, as soon as they can physically write (which is early, since the father has high expectations of his children in every respect). There is sometimes disagreement between Frank Sr. and the children's mother, Lillian, which points out some of the differences between them.
For example, Lillian wants to save a spot on the "progress and weight charts" for recording the children's daily prayers, but Frank Sr. ever the practical man of action rather than contemplation, insists there is no room for that. Many of the funniest episodes in the book derive from these types of conflicts (always rather gentle ones) between the parents, especially since their mother, Lillian, is more relaxed in terms of her personality, and sees everything more individually and perhaps, at times, more clearly as well (although Lillian never directly insists on this to Frank Sr. , but just lets things happen until the truth becomes apparent on its own).
Although both Lillian and Frank Sr. re brilliant engineers, Lillian seems to have more personal insight into her children as individuals. And, despite Frank Sr. 's considerable "efficiency", Lillian often has more common sense. This is perhaps reflected in the way Frank Sr. and his philosophies of "efficiency" are joked about, much more in the book, than Lillian or her actions or beliefs are joked about. Lillian was an early career woman, and one of the other themes of this book is how she handled, so well, especially for those times, a high-powered career and raising twelve children.
Lillian Gilbreth herself, although not the main focus of this book, is very inspiring in that way. The main reason, overall, that I liked this book is because the humor within it is good natured, and the high-powered Gilbreth family, even though it is so large and chaotic, and has its own share of challenges and setbacks, is not "dysfunctional" in any way, like so many, even smaller, families today. That, in and of itself, is amazing. Whatever is happening, inside or outside the family, there is always love, solidarity, and teamwork within the family itself.
The authors also mention how Frank Sr. would never criticize his family to anyone outside the family. Obviously, this book was set in far simpler times than today. For example, as the now grown up Gilbreth siblings first describe their father: "Dad was a tall man, with a large head, jowls, and a Herbert Hoover collar... " (p. 1). This tells us right away that the book takes place many decades ago, since Herbert Hoover was President in the 1920's.
Even the conflicts and disagreements detailed within the book, which are always described truthfully and in detail, seem humorous, good-natured, and reasonable, especially compared to many kinds of family conflicts today. Also, these conflicts are always agreeably resolved, without any lasting damage to any of the children or their egos. This, also, is truly amazing, since both parents are so busy, not only inside but outside the home. Also, the mother and the father are very different from one another by nature, but as the authors point out, they work well together and do everything well as a team.
They are always supportive of each other and their children. Dr. Lillian Gilbreth seems the true hero of the Cheaper by the Dozen family. Frank Gilbreth Sr. died before any of his children had reached 20 years old. Lillian continued raising the children on her own, while working and lecturing full-time. Moreover, she managed to put them all through college. Lillian Gilbreth, amazingly, given both the time and the large number of children she had, also had a very distinguished career in her own right when few women had such careers, and even fewer were also mothers of such large families.
Still, Lillian Gilbreth managed to be a loving and attentive mother to all of her children. I found Cheaper by the Dozen to be a very inspiring book, and always very honest and humorous. Cheaper by the Dozen conveys the message that family members who love one another, stick together, and have a sense of humor about things that happen in families, and in life, can make it through anything. Therefore, I highly recommend the book Cheaper by the Dozen as an excellent reading experience for everyone.

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