Cheaper By The Dozen- A Book Review


“Dad himself used to tell a story about one time when Mother went off to fill a lecture engagement and left him in charge at home. When Mother returned, she asked him if everything had run smoothly. ‘Didn't have any trouble except with that one over there,' he replied. 'But a spanking brought him into line.'  Mother could handle any crisis without losing her composure. ‘That's not one of ours, dear,' she said. 'He belongs next door.’”

I grew up in an average sized family. I had a sister who was three years my junior and then, when I was fourteen, I gained an even younger stepsister. Although we had our share of sibling spats, our house of three girls was generally quiet, orderly, and…well, average. I didn’t know anyone with a particularly large family and had no experience with the nuances of large family dynamics.  As a result, when I picked up the book Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, I was particularly eager to take a peek at their account of large family life. What I did not expect, however, was to find a hilarious and beautiful tribute to a unique father and husband, and a nostalgic picture of typical turn-of-the-century life for an atypical American family.

Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillie were world-famous efficiency experts in pre-WWI America--who also happened to have a dozen children.  They were an unusual family, not just because of their size, but because of the career and vibrant personality of their patriarch. In this delightful memoir, two of the twelve children recount in various tales the ways in which their father worked out his theories and practices regarding motion study and education in their bustling home. A fascinating and fun read, Cheaper By The Dozen paints a picture of what it was like to grow up with Frank Gilbreth as a father.

Despite the fact that he believed that a family could (and should) run like an efficient factory, Frank Gilbreth doted on his children and filled the home with warmth and love. The book chronicles how he was as quick to pull out a surprise present from his pocket as he was to administer discipline or correction for wrong doing. A jokester, he filled the house with laughter and antics that had the Gilbreth family (and the reader) in stitches. His pioneer work in the field of motion study was fascinating, and he carried out experiments and documented theories with his children in ways that were equally gripping and hilarious. A staunch proponent of education, Gilbreth took every opportunity to act as teacher and mentor to his twelve children, from painting Morse code and astronomical diagrams on the walls, to performing quick math drills and tricks at the dinner table.

Although the book focuses primarily on the father, his love for his wife and children is portrayed in a way that paints a beautiful portrait of family life. Despite occasional squabbles, the siblings genuinely love each other and defend one another. The parents are generally honored and respected. Extended family is cherished and revered. And Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth model a marriage that is loving, cooperative, complementary, and traditional. In other words, this book is a quiet and effective defense of the traditional family.  It is also staunchly pro-life.  Gilbreth’s love for all of his children, born and yet unborn, is highlighted, as is his family’s adoration of children in every season of life. From cooing at his newborn to chaperoning his teenaged daughters’ dates, Gilbreth’s devotion to and concern for all of his children is heartwarming.

Because the book takes place in the early Twentieth Century, many of the nuances of life during that time are chronicled, including childhood illnesses, technological advances, and societal customs, including discipline. Some of Frank Gilbreth’s parenting choices and disciplinary practices may be offensive to some readers; corporal punishment is used, but there is absolutely no instances of abuse implied. Also, although this is a generally wholesome and clean book, there are a few swear words, including a couple of instances in which the Lord’s name is taken in vain. Cautious parents may want to be aware of the fact that there is a hilarious chapter in which the parents play a joke on a woman advocating for birth control. Further, Mr Gilbreth is not religious and talks somewhat insultingly about preachers in a particular context.

Despite these few mildly objectionable instances, I found Cheaper By The Dozen to be a delightful, hilarious, nostalgic, inspiring, and family-oriented novel that is perfect for a family read aloud.

A note about the movies: the original 1950 movie with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy is generally faithful to the book. The 2003 version with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt has absolutely no resemblance to the book or original movie.