This classic memoir tells the story of the Gilbreths, an early 20th-century family of 12 children. The authors, the second oldest daughter Ernestine and the oldest son Frank, share amusing incidents from their lives and describe how their parents, both noted efficiency experts, managed their ever-growing household.
Published in 1948, this book is no tell-all misery memoir. It’s a book about celebrating family love, no matter how quirky the family. Listening to it, there were times when I thought that their father was just terrible and that I wouldn’t want to know him at all. But the tone, both in the writing and in Dana Ivey’s reading, was so affectionate that I couldn’t stay annoyed at his overly big and boastful personality. True, he’s a bit of a pill, but he seems to know it, and when his kids catch on to his efforts to manipulate them, he’s a good sport about it.
One of my favorite stories illustrates this dynamic pretty well. Every week, Mr. Gilbreth takes the older kids to the movies, and every week he announces that they will not stay for the second showing. No way, no how. And every week, the kids ask to stay. After much persuading, Dad always relents. Finally, the kids decide to show him. After the first show, they gather up their coats and prepare to exit. Dad realizes they aren’t going to ask to stay, and he won’t get to see the show again. The kids remind them that he said at the beginning of the evening they wouldn’t be staying, and he ends up having to back track. He never quite ‘fesses up that he’s been playing games with them all along, but it’s clear that everyone knows the score and that no one is really mad about it.
The Gilbreth parents’ work in motion studies and efficiency adds some interest to the book. They put their ideas to work in managing the household and often involved the children in their efforts to figure out the most efficient way of doing things. In the most extreme example, Mr. Gilbreth has several of the children’s tonsils out at the same time and films the proceedings so he can figure out how surgeons can perform operations more efficiently (for example, by having a nurse hand over instruments instead of walking around the table to fetch them). They had their hands in a little of everything, from inventing the step-on trash can to designing a method for teaching touch typing. Who knew one couple could do so much—all while raising a dozen children.
This book was a lot of fun to listen to. I’m sure that it glosses over some of the more difficult aspects of life in the Gilbreth home (the early death of one of the children is never mentioned), but sometimes it’s nice just to hear the good stuff. There are a few wince-inducing expressions and ideas about marriage that might jar to modern readers (as when Mrs. Gilbreth says coarse talk is Eskimo), but that’s part of its charm. It’s a period piece, and the family shares many of the flaws of the period. Still, they’re a likable bunch and I enjoyed spending time with them.