Emancipation Starts in the Kitchen by@roxanamurariu

Emancipation Starts in the Kitchen

What is the link between industrial/organizational psychology and modern kitchen layouts? It all started with Lillian Gilbreth. Wiping, hoovering, polishing, dusting, washing, scrubbing. Shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning. Repainting, redecorating, decluttering, repairing. Housekeeping is not like other types of work: we can’t put it on our CV, we get no recognition for not letting things fall apart, and it’s a Sisyphus rock: it must be done over and over again. 
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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others. Personal blog: https://roxanamurariu.com/

I hate housework. You make the beds, you wash the dishes, and six months later, you have to start all over again.

Joan Rivers 

Wiping, hoovering, polishing, dusting, washing, scrubbing. Shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning. Repainting, redecorating, decluttering, repairing. Housekeeping is not like other types of work: we can’t put it on our CV, we get no recognition for not letting things fall apart, and it’s a Sisyphus rock: it must be done over and over again. 

And yet, our generation has access to some state of the art inventions, as the humble kitchen, the hearth of the household, became one of the most technologically revolutionized places in the world.

Compare our mothers and grandmothers’ kitchen versus ours: washing machines (in some parts of the world, the washing machine is in the kitchen), dishwashers, ovens, microwaves, fridges, freezers, food mixers, food processors, juicers, slow cookers, multicookers, air fryers, etc. 

But how did we get to modern kitchens? The development of the modern kitchen started in the 1920s with a woman, Lillian Gilbreth, industrial psychologist, engineer, ergonomics pioneer, and the mother of twelve children.

Alongside her husband and partner, Frank B. Gilbreth, she built a business and engineering consulting firm. They were also the inventors of motion study (a scientific management method about eliminating wasted motions), where they filmed individuals doing various office tasks or industrial processes. After analyzing their movies, the Gilbreths would break the recorded cycles into components to optimize.

The Gilbreths tested many of their business and efficiency ideas on their children. They had plenty of candidates. Two of their children candidly recounted their childhoods in Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes memoirs. 

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. 

Each child who wanted extra pocket money submitted a sealed bid saying what he would do the job for. The lowest bidder got the contract. 

To be efficient, in the Gilbreth family, was a virtue on a par with veracity, honesty, generosity, philanthropy, and tooth-brushing.

Cheaper by the Dozen 

When one child needed to have their tonsils removed, their father decided all their children (except a girl that the doctor let off) had to undergo tonsillectomies to reduce the hassle on the family. Also, Frank wanted to use this opportunity of multiple surgeries as an experiment to apply motion study in surgeries.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help that the video operator forgot to start the camera while recording those surgeries. It also didn’t help that the doctor mistook two of Gilbreth’s daughters (of course, it had to be the girl that wasn’t supposed to have the operation, which ended up having her tonsils removed).

It was regimentation, all right. But bear in mind the trouble most parents have in getting just one child off to school and multiply it by twelve. 

Cheaper by the Dozen 

When asked what he was saving time for with their motion studies, Frank answered:

For work, if you love that best… For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure… For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.

Cheaper by the Dozen 

There are also numerous instances of casual racism or physical abuse stories (spanking was a method favoured by Frank and entirely avoided by Lillian). Still, the tone of these memoirs resembles a joie de vivre manner:

Sometimes Mother turned around between songs and said to us: “Right now is the happiest time in the world.” And perhaps it was. 

Cheaper by the Dozen 

This lifestyle seemed to end when Frank died of a heart attack. Lillian had to care for 11 children (a daughter died in her infancy), ranging from teenager to infant years.

Unfortunately, most Gilbreth’s business partner companies were adamant about renewing or giving new contracts solely to Lillian, a woman. But she needed to keep the business, as she wanted to see all of her children graduating from universities.

Mother thought one way she might get motion study contracts was to apply timesaving methods to the kitchen. Manufacturers would listen to a woman, she believed, when the subject was home appliances. 

If the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, that’s the way she’d enter. Under her arrangement, a person could mix a cake, put it in the oven, and do the dishes without taking more than a couple of dozen steps. 

[Lillian]: “I want a stove that stands up high, so you don’t have to bend over to see what’s in the oven. And I want a refrigerator that you don’t have to lean into.” 

Belles on Their Toes

Lillian turned her attention to kitchens, even though her children once described her kitchen as a “model of inefficiency”. At that time, kitchens were large rooms with pieces of furniture such as tables, cupboards, iceboxes, sink, stove, etc., put around the room’s edges. Sometimes, cooking ingredients and cookware utensils were in a separate pantry room from the kitchen. 

So, Lillian obsessively tracked women’s motions in the kitchen and “interviewed over 4,000 women to design the proper height for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen fixtures as she worked on improving kitchen designs”.

In partnership with the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, she developed a much-improved kitchen layout, centred across the kitchens’ major zones: food storage (refrigerator, pantry), food preparation (countertops and sink), and cooktop (stove). This L-shaped layout maximized the kitchen space, producing a circular routing of working and reducing the time and effort required to prepare meals.

Later, this layout would be called the kitchen work triangle, and this principle still holds strong in today’s kitchens (my kitchen included).

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The kitchen designed by Lillian.
Image credit: The Architectural Review  

The test of the efficiency of the new kitchen was made with strawberry shortcake because this dish and its twin, peach shortcake, are both fairly complicated and popular. The cake was first made in a typically haphazard kitchen. We kept a record of every motion and every step taken in this process. Then an exactly similar shortcake was prepared in the Herald-Tribune Kitchen [designed by Lillian], which has the same equipment and utensils as the other kitchen but has them arranged for efficiency. The results of this test were so startling as to be almost unbelievable. The number of kitchen operations had been cut from 97 to 64. The number of actual steps taken had been reduced from 281 to 45 — less than one-sixth! 

The Better Homes Manual

Lillian is credited with the invention of shelves to the inside of refrigerator doors (including the butter tray and egg keeper) or the foot-pedal trash can and filed numerous patents for her designs, including design for an improved electric can opener or a wastewater hose for washing machines.

There is no wonder that 

Within the next few years, Mother became accepted as an industrial engineer, and motion study began to play an increasingly important part in the mass production of the Twenties. 

Belles on Their Toes

Still, the world didn’t stay still, and many things have changed since the 1920s. There are single-wall kitchens where it is geometrically impossible to achieve a triangle. Preparing dishes might not be the responsibility of a single person, as families are cooking together and need more space in the kitchen. Then, some kitchens are open spaces with kitchen islands, not isolated rooms. For some, designing a kitchen according to zones might work better, where zones are areas with a specific purpose: food preparation, cooking, cleaning, baking (scale, measuring cups, mixers, rolling pins, baking sheets, cookie cutters, etc.), breakfast (coffee maker, toaster, tea, cereals), etc.

Nevertheless, no matter where kitchen trends go, Lillian was one of the pioneers of efficient kitchen design.

No woman who has laboured for even five minutes in an inefficient kitchen needs to be told that the most exhausting part of dishwashing, ironing and any other task usually done standing is the constant bending over. It is a tragedy and a reproach that for hundreds of years, feminine backs have ached so unnecessarily. 

The Better Homes Manual

As a side note, Lillian worked tirelessly with her husband since they married. She earned a PhD in applied psychology, co-authored multiple books and papers on various scientific topics, received over twenty honorary degrees, travelled worldwide to deliver lectures, and is considered the first industrial/organizational psychologist. 

Something had to give to keep everything afloat, so Lillian had full-time helpers around the house. Also, her older children (mainly daughters) supervised running the house, with one of the daughters, Martha, having exceptional people skills.

One time, during a storm when electricity was cut off, Martha, still a teenager, called the fire station and asked for electric lanterns:

“With all the children we have in the house,” she told him [the firefighters chief], “I thought it might be a fire hazard to have them stumbling around in the dark, striking matches.”  

A fire truck pulled into the driveway a few minutes later with six electric lanterns, on loan to Martha. She had a thermos of coffee ready to send back to the station to the chief. 

Belles on Their Toes

Martha was also very skilled in budgeting, something that her mother admitted she didn’t have an interest in, thus freeing her mother to do her work. As there were six boys in Gilbreth’s household in need of haircuts every few months that could throw the family budget off, Martha negotiated a deal with the barber:

She wondered whether there was any way he could give us a special rate. And if it wouldn’t pay him to make us a rate, did he know anybody who was just opening a shop and needed the business, who might be willing to do so. The barber said he had never given special rates before but that he wouldn’t mind doing it, provided the boys didn’t come on weekends or after five o’clock in the afternoons when business was heaviest. 

Belles on Their Toes

Also, perhaps ironically, Lillian never cooked, except for an apple cake here and there. She told a group of businesswomen in the 1930s:

We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labour in the home. We were executives.

Indeed, their children carried out some household chores. They learned from a young age how to make their beds and take care of their rooms. The smaller children dusted the lower shelves and polished the legs of the chairs and tables. The older children dusted the upper shelves and polished the tabletops. Optimization.

Balancing a family, housework, a career, or mumblety-pegs is about simple principles: prioritizing the things we want to get done and then getting them done efficiently, but with no pretence of perfection. We can delegate the rest of the non-priorities to people we trust. True, priorities are volatile as they continue to be made and unmade in time, and we will need to adapt.

These ideas allowed Lillian to make a name for herself in a male-dominated field. Her inventions and studies simplified household activities for all of us as our housework should be valued and not wasted in inefficient settings.

While I circle in my kitchen triangle or put my dishwasher to work, I cannot help but wonder how many hours per home aren’t saved across years and countries using efficient kitchen layouts and appliances? This quiet domestic emancipation allowed us to avoid endless hours of doing household drudgery.

The Institute is not opposed to walking and exercise for the woman of the family — far from it! But we do maintain that she should take that exercise in the open air, rather than in a treadmill round of refrigerator to sink, to stove and back again. 

The Better Homes Manual

On a darker note, it should be mentioned that while reading Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s Institutions for ‘Fallen Women’, I came across a talk about the closure of the laundry on Seán McDermott Street in Dublin, Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry, shut down because it was “no longer commercially viable: the domestic washing machine did more to abolish these institutions than the [Irish] State ever did”, an opinion reiterated in this Irish Times article: “possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes”.


Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/lillian-gilbreth-when-emancipation-starts-in-the-kitchen/.

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