Montclair History: Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, An Innovative Woman

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The Gilbreth “Cheaper by the Dozen” house at 68 Eagle Rock Way in Montclair (now demolished)

Today, we celebrate International Women’s’ Day as part of Women’s History Month to showcase the achievements of notable women from the past and present. However, back in the 1920s -30s -40s it was perhaps quite “remarkable” for a wife and mother from “comfortable” Montclair (then the second wealthiest town per capita in the USA), to be acclaimed as an engineer and inventor, so perhaps for this reason, Montclair’s Dr. Lillian Gilbreth kept a reserved profile.

Did you know that the magic “triangle” in kitchen design as we know it today, is thanks to Gilbreth, the “Cheaper by the Dozen” Montclair’s mother of 12? And the world-famous pedal operated domestic garbage pail? Gilbreth worked with her husband (previously a building contractor) as a team of motion efficiency experts for industries.  The Gilbreths lived in a 14-room Victorian at 68 Eagle Rock Way in the Stonebridge section of Montclair and are subjects of the novels and films, written by son Frank Jr. and daughter Ernestine. It’s curious to think that the children wished to pay tribute to their remarkable mother with fictional works “Cheaper By Dozen” and a second book and film, “Belles on Their Toes” when their mother was such an amazing and accomplished figure in real life. One of the 12 children had died before the Cheaper by the Dozen book was written and the book apparently served to memorialize the fact that there were 12.  

The original 1950 film, is shot in California but attempts were made to characterize the atmosphere of life in our “signature suburb” with their house, the neighborhood, the Lackawanna Train Station and even a dance at Montclair High.

After Mr. Frank Gilbreth passed away at 55 in 1924 at the Montclair Train Station, Dr. Lillian continued to raise their children and worked and traveled even more. She was the first female industrial/organizational psychologist, one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and the first woman professor at Purdue University among other many distinctions. Gilbreth died in 1972 at age 93.

An Efficiency Kitchen Design and “work triangle” by Dr. Gilbreth

Among Dr. Gilbreth’s inventions is the Handicapped Accessible Studio Apartment that she designed for the for the 1939 World’s Fair and the Efficiency kitchen based upon a triangle of “task” movements.

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“The Shoe” The Gilbreth’s Summer House in Nantucket
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Dr. Lillian Gilbreth and some glimpses of life in Montclair from the 1950 film, Cheaper by the Dozen



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