As you race around doing your holiday cooking, even if it’s only opening a bottle of wine for guests, take time to raise your oven mitt to the Greatest Generation woman who designed the efficient, modern kitchen we take for granted today. Her name was Lillian Gilbreth, and her many accomplishments include:

  • Pioneer in time-and-motion studies
  • First female professor of engineering at Purdue University
  • First woman elected to National Academy of Engineering (at age 89)
  • First industrial psychologist
  • Pioneer in ergonomics
  • Originator of the “work triangle” now central to kitchen design
  • Prolific author of papers and books

Along the way, she also gave birth to 12 children.

Photo by Harris and Ewing - Smithsonian Institution collections

Photo by Harris and Ewing, from Smithsonian Institution collections, shows Lillian Gilbreth in the 1930s.

Lillian Gilbreth and her husband Frank established themselves as time-and-motion (“efficiency”) experts through industrial studies that broke each component of a process down into how many movements it required, where a worker had to reach for necessary parts or tools, and how many steps the worker had to walk. The duo used stopwatches and short movies to analyze the procedures. Though her name often didn’t appear on them, Lillian wrote many of the papers and books describing their studies and their implications for increased productivity and decreased worker fatigue.

When Frank died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1924, leaving her with a dozen children to provide for, Lillian found that male executives interested in time-motion studies were far less willing to deal with a woman. A PhD. in psychology had given her more than passing insight into human behavior, however. If she couldn’t gain entry to clients through the front door, she’d go in through the kitchen.

Gas and electric refrigerators were starting to replace the icebox in middle class homes. Companies were suddenly viewing women as potential buyers of these as well as small electrical appliances. Gilbreth’s trained eye saw that even with these new marvels, the kitchens of the late 1920s would remain inefficient – and exhausting – due to inefficient design:

  • A wall-hung sink and drainboard on one wall, with a cabinet or built in cupboard abutting it.
  • A free-standing stove on another wall.
  • The refrigerator or icebox somewhere else.
  • And bowls, pans, utensils, dishes? Those might be across the room in a pantry, or at best in another cupboard somewhere.
Lillian Gilbreth's design would make kitchens more efficient than this one newly electrified by the REA. Photo from Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.

Lillian Gilbreth’s design would make kitchens more efficient than this one newly electrified by the REA. Photo from Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.

In 1929, Gilbreth unveiled her Kitchen Practical. It had a counter next to the stove, with food storage above the counter, pots and pans below, and the refrigerator just a few steps away. A multi-use rolling cart provided additional work surface or wheeled dirty dishes to the sink. The resulting layout was the origin of today’s L-shaped kitchen. At the heart of it was what we now call the “work triangle”.

Using the same analysis of movements, equipment and parts (ingredients for a cake) she and Frank had used to study production lines, Gilbreth had created a small, efficient workspace that required very few steps. A few years later, testing a slightly different version of the Kitchen Practical, a cake was baked with identical ingredients in an old style kitchen and the Gilbreth design. The number of steps the cook had to move had dropped from 281 to 45.

With her expertise now well established, Gilbreth soon found her services in demand by the U.S. government from the Great Depression through World War II and the Korean War. In 1930 President Herbert Hoover tapped her to chair the women’s division of the Emergency Committee for Employment where she created a nationwide program that created new jobs. During World War II she oversaw conversion of factories to defense plants and studied workflow to make them more productive.

Today, most readers who know anything at all about this remarkable woman know her from a pair of books by two of her children: Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes. With fine humor they describe growing up in a household with two working parents who ran studies on the most efficient way for them to shower, followed by one muddling on creatively without their father.

Private eye Maggie Sullivan uses snippets of knowledge about Gilbreth’s work in Shamus in a Skirt. What the fictional detective didn’t know was that she and Gilbreth shared one thing in common: Neither could cook.


If you haven’t tried the Maggie Sullivan mysteries, you can read the first book in the series FREE

A .38, a nip of gin and sensational legs get 1940s private investigator Maggie Sullivan out of most scrapes, until a stranger threatens to bust her nose, she’s hauled in on suspicion of his murder and she finds herself in the cross-hairs of a sadistic crime boss.

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