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Last Reviewed on March 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

The semi-autobiographical novel Cheaper by the Dozen by two of the twelve Gilbreth children, Frank Jr. and Ernestine, details the life of the Gilbreth family as they navigate the difficult task of raising twelve children, keeping them fed and healthy, and eventually sending them to college.

The historical context of...

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The semi-autobiographical novel Cheaper by the Dozen by two of the twelve Gilbreth children, Frank Jr. and Ernestine, details the life of the Gilbreth family as they navigate the difficult task of raising twelve children, keeping them fed and healthy, and eventually sending them to college.

The historical context of this book is very important to understanding it, because it shows some of the benefits the family had, along with some of the challenges that they contended with at the same time. Living in the early 1900’s, the Gilbreth parents had a few opportunities that helped with raising twelve children, not the least of which was affordable housing offered under the policies that benefited Veterans, such as Frank. In their day and age, income was typically much higher compared with the cost of living, and veterans were allowed to get housing for very affordable rates. That, coupled with the fact that both parents worked, meant that they had a lot more disposable income than people would assume in modern times. The fact that Lillian worked, as well, was extraordinary for the time. It was fairly uncommon for women to work outside the house until several decades later.

There is also a historical connection between the Gilbreths and the idea of efficiency. Both Frank and Lillian were efficiency professionals, but it was such a new field (having been crafted throughout the earliest parts of the 20th century) that the Gilbreths essentially pioneering the way. Six Sigma and other efficiency practices were still in their infancy or not yet even conceived, and yet this family was performing time studies and identifying wasted motion in their household, when that wouldn’t be common practice in the workplace for another few decades.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

In Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey re-create their unforgettable childhood with their entrepreneurial father. Eccentric by conventional standards, Frank B. Gilbreth was a strict disciplinarian who demanded top performance from his family while enjoying his inseparable roles as husband, father, and motion study expert. This self-assured, self-made man believed that his wife Lillian’s expertise in psychology and his in motion study was the perfect combination for rearing a large family. Gilbreth and his wife agreed that an even dozen children would be ideal, and the authors state that “he was convinced anything he and Mother teamed up on was sure to be a success.”

Introducing their father in chapter 1, the authors stress the word “Dad.” The repetitive use of the word confirms their father’s status as undisputed head of their family and allows them to expound on his fatherly side while describing his authoritative nature. Gilbreth was a large man with a personality to match his physical proportions—self-confident, outspoken, and exacting. Yet the authors demonstrate that his innate need for efficiency was equaled by his love of children, by his plea-sure in being the center of their attention, and by his high good humor. He had strong principles, was a firm disciplinarian, and had a soft heart for his wife and family—he was his family’s benevolent dictator.

Cheaper by the Dozen unfolds in episodic chapters that vivaciously capture life in the Gilbreth household: the move to Montclair, New Jersey; the hilarious outings in Foolish Carriage, the family’s idiosyncratic, gray Pierce Arrow; the establishment of family committees to accomplish chores expeditiously; and the unusual and effective teaching methods that their father devised.

The authors backtrack to relate their parents’ disparate family backgrounds, how they met, their unique courtship, and their decision to have a large family. The arrivals of their children—as so often happens in families who move frequently—are chronicled by the city and state in which each was born. An example of their father’s pride and enthusiasm in exhibiting his family in his efficiency experiments is recalled in the amusing chapter on motion pictures and tonsillectomies.

Gilbreth was a born educator who had a knack for finding the quickest way to perform any task. He inspired the authors to compile this book of events that range from their births, through childhood diseases, to the era of bobbed hair, silk stockings, and boyfriends in raccoon coats, to their father’s sudden death. Cheaper by the Dozen, written in the form of a novel, pays tribute to the remarkable Gilbreth parents, who succeeded in managing full-time careers while rearing twelve energetic offspring.

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