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Last Updated on March 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075

Cheaper by the Dozen is a semi-autobiographical novel by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. that was published in 1949. The tale is based on the daily lives and childhood adventures of the authors, who grew up in a household with twelve children. The story takes place in the early 20th century.

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The Gilbreths are a tight-knit Irish family. They live in Montclair, New Jersey, in a "Taj Mahal of a house with fourteen rooms a two-story barn out back, a greenhouse, chicken yard, grape arbors rose bushes, and a couple of dozen fruit trees." They dash about town in a large Pierce Arrow car, the entire family crammed inside with their hearts in their mouths, as their father is a fast and reckless driver.

Frank and Lillian, the childrens' parents, are professional time management and efficiency experts, and they use their knowledge and skills to run the household with brisk efficiency in order to avoid total bedlam. Charts are posted in various rooms to ensure the children complete and mark off their personal chores each day, and occasional chores, such as digging up tree trunks or burning leaves, are put up for bid and awarded to the lowest bidder among the children.

As happens in most families, the oldest children are put in charge of the youngest. The eldest Gilbreth children are Anne, Ernestine, and Martha, and the youngest children are Jane, Dan, Jack and Bob. The middle children, Frank, Bill, Lill, and Fred, generally fend for themselves and each other.

While Frank acts as the self-assumed leader of the family, the children recognize that their mother Lillian, who also works professionally as a psychologist, is the driving force behind the family unit.

Mother never threatened, never shouted or became excited, never spanked a single one of her children—or anyone else's, either.

Frank tends to be more emotional, energetic, and impulsive; Lillian is quieter, more practical, and more organized in her thinking. She is the one who always runs the family role calls—a daily event that helps them all make sure everyone is on board before they progress from one place to another. In one racy incident, the family accidentally leaves one of the younger boys behind in a restaurant. When they realize the mistake and drive back to get him, they find that the restaurant is now a garishly lit speakeasy. Frank Jr. is found being treated to ice cream by the kind kitchen staff, and disaster is once again averted for the Gilbreths.

Frank grew up in various cities in New England, his widowed mother finally settling on Boston, where she hoped her son would go to MIT. Frank, however, decides to save the family resources and go straight into trade, applying his efficient mind to bricklaying and construction. He rises quickly in the field and and by the time he is 27, he is a motion study expert for factories and has offices in multiple cities. Lillian grew up in Oakland, California, and studied psychology at U.C. Berkeley.

When they are courting in Boston, Lillian is shy, quiet, and reserved, and Frank is extroverted, breezy, and easy-going. They meet on a chaperoned tour, and fall in love immediately. Frank takes her driving around Boston in his new car, and by the time the drive is done, they have both privately decided they will get married. When she heads back to Oakland, he follows, charms her family, and seals the deal. When he arrives, he heads into their garden and starts laying bricks, and showing her folks how to do it. They adore Frank.

Thus the theory of their family and their actual family were born. Later, after the family moves to their larger home in Montclair, Frank institutes a weekly Family Council meeting, officiated by him and run on vague parliamentary rules, though often jury-rigged (by the parents) and sometimes verging on the hysterical. They create purchasing committees for the household—running a family this large required a creative budget.

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While Lillian sees each child in her family as an individual, Frank generally sees them as an all-inclusive group who are all part of a master plan. A big part of his master plan is the idea that it is perfectly excellent if his children can skip grades in school.

Frank is very popular at the schools among the teacher and administrators, and even the strictest teacher will smile at him when he strides into a classroom and takes over. He ends up doing efficiency lectures at many of the schools. For the kids, the most humiliating moment is if a younger sibling skipped up into their own class before they had skipped out of it.

Frank prepares the children at home with home-training programs in many different topics, then visits them at their schools periodically to quiz them and their teachers and find out if they are ready to skip a grade. The reward for skipping a grade is a new bicycle.

When World War I begins, the family have seven children with the eighth on the way. Frank enrolls and becomes an efficiency expert for the War Department. He is sent off to Oklahoma on a long project, and, at this same time, Lillian has an opportunity to visit her parents and family back in Oakland, California. She takes her children on a memorable train trip out west. When she arrives, she is a different person than when she left home.

A significant plot point in the novel is when the family all get sick together. Frank hates it when anyone gets sick because it's less efficient. The family is quarantined for the measles, and finally Frank gets them too, and is covered with red spots. However, it turns out Frank has covered himself with red dots using a pen, just to play a joke on the family and get them all riled up.

After the measles incident, Lillian and Frank become interested in applying their time management and efficiency work to the medical field, and begin to work professionally with doctors and hospitals to improve how surgeries are run in operating rooms. The “lucky” family is then volunteered for one of the motion studies—they all need their tonsils out, so several of the children will have their tonsils out as part of the whole study. The children are less than thrilled. The operations are a circus, but the children are troopers and come through.

The family also has a summer house out in Nantucket. While there, Frank and Lillian continue to apply their colorful intelligence toward schooling their kids while they have fun. They write codes on the walls of the summer house, which the children have to decipher, and when they do the messages direct them to where a prize awaits them. Planets and stars are painted on the walls and ceilings of the summer house to teach the kids astrology. The family has a flatboat, the Rena, and Frank runs it.

Later in the novel, the family is contacted by a newsreel company who want to make a short film featuring the Gilbreths in action. Lillian and Frank are dubious, but decide to go ahead with the film, and allow a photographer to visit them in Nantucket and make a filmed record of the family in operation. When they later watch the newsreel at a local theater, it gets more laughs than the main comedy on the bill, and the family realize that the photographer and newsreel company wanted to make a joke out of them.

As daughters Anne, Ernestine, and Martha are the eldest, there are many trials and tribulations in store for the family when they reach high school. Frank is predictably old fashioned and protective of his girls, and they have a rough time breaking through the ice and being allowed to dress and make up their hair and faces as their schoolmates do. It is eldest daughter Anne who plows forward, bravely bobbing her hair and facing up to her father’s disapproval. She feels she must sacrifice and venture forward, to make things easier for her younger sisters, and she persists.

Dating is strictly chaperoned, either by Frank or by one of the older brothers in the family. Frank Jr. and Bill didn't like the chaperone job any more than the girls liked having them for chaperones.

“For Lord's sake, Daddy,” Frank [Jr.] complained, “I feel just like a third wheel sitting in the back seat all by myself.”

“That's just what you're supposed to be—the third wheel. I don't expect you to be able to thrash those fullbacks if they start trying to take liberties with your sisters. But at least you'll be able to run for help.”

Frank goes to all the school dances and sits off on a bench, doing his paper work, while the kids have fun. At first he is ignored, but because he is such a fun personality, the kids begin to talk to him, bring him snacks and drinks, and take him under their wing. His daughters are surprised and bemused.

One evening, Frank takes many of the kids to the movie house, and they watch a twelve-reel epic called Over the Hill to the Poor House, about a hard-working mother who raises several children, who then grow up, don’t want to take care of their poor old mom, and toss her out into a snowstorm. Frank weeps copiously during the film, and for weeks afterwards the movie’s story makes him grumpy.

A big part of Frank’s reaction to the poor house movie is how worried he sometimes becomes about Lillian, and how she will be able to continue raising their large family after he is dead. He has known that he has a bad heart for many years, and he and his wife have talked about it. The doctor eventually tells Frank that he is going to die, soon. His bad heart is terminal and there is nothing to be done about it. He is only fifty-five.

We noticed that Dad had grown thinner. For the first time in twenty-five years be weighed less than two hundred pounds. He joked about how strange it was to be able to see his feet again. His hands had begun to tremble a little and his face was gray. Sometimes, when be was playing baseball with the older boys or rolling on the floor with Bob and Jane he'd stop suddenly and say that he had had enough for today. There was a trace of a stagger as he walked away.

It soon becomes clear that one of the big reasons for Frank’s insistence on home efficiency, chore charts, and organization for the family is that he knows it is going to help Lillian and his children when he is gone.

Lillian and Frank are busy preparing for work—as post-war industrialization kicks in throughout the world, they are more in demand than ever, and they make plans for a world tour of lectures and demonstrations. But, none of it is to be, and Frank dies on June 14, 1924, three days before he is due to leave for lectures in Europe. Frank walks to the train station and calls Lillian to chat before he leaves, then the phone suddenly goes dead on Lillian’s end. The children are all called home from school:

We jumped out of the car and ran towards the house. Jackie was sitting on a terrace near the sidewalk. His face was smudged where he had rubbed his hands.

“Our Daddy’s dead,” he sobbed.

Dad was a part of all of us, and a part of all of us died then.

After their father’s sudden death, the children notice a strong change in their mother. Once so reserved and quiet:

Now, suddenly, she wasn't afraid any more because there was nothing to be afraid of. Now nothing could upset her because the thing that mattered most had been upset. None of us ever saw her weep again.

Ernestine and Frank Jr. go on to write a second book about their family, which picks up where the first book leaves off, charting their lives as their widowed mother Lillian leads the family forward. The second book, Belles on Their Toes, was published in 1950, and is as much a tribute to Lillian as this charming book of family life is a tribute to Frank.

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