[Review and Author Chat]: Monica Kulling on Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen

Toronto-based author Monica Kulling is here today to talk about Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen (Tundra Books, 2014), the sixth title in her award winning Great Idea series which features marvelous inventors.

I must admit my prior knowledge of Lillian’s life was limited to Myrna Loy’s portrayal of her in the 1950 movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Though I assumed she must have been an extraordinarily energetic and supportive person to be married to fellow efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and co-parent a rambunctious passel of kids, I did not know the extent of her brilliant accomplishments as an industrial engineer, psychologist, professor, inventor and author in her own right, especially following Frank’s death from a heart attack at the age of 55.

The Gilbreth Family

In Spic-and-Span!, we first see how Frank and Lillian worked together in the early 1900’s to “show factory workers how to get the most done in the least amount of time.” Using a motion picture camera to film tasks, they were able to spot unnecessary movements, helping workers find the “one best way to do every job.” Of course they also implemented the Gilbreth system in their own household, streamlining everyday activities like brushing teeth, making beds, etc.

Art © 2014 David Parkins (click to enlarge)

But once Frank died in 1924, Lillian was faced with the monumental challenge of raising 11 children on her own and finding work at a time when factories wouldn’t hire a female industrial engineer, even one with over 20 years of experience. Eventually she was hired by Macy’s to improve its cash room operations, and later by the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company to improve kitchen design.

I love how Lillian interviewed over 4,000 women to evaluate what didn’t work in their kitchens. Her forte had always been the human aspect of any work environment, believing that a happy, motivated person was easily more productive using actions that minimized fatigue. And just because it was ‘women’s work’ carried out in the home, should it be considered any less seriously?

The Kitchen Practical (for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Co.)

Lillian designed a more comfortable, efficient kitchen, paying special attention to the essential work triangle (stove-sink-refrigerator), while considering the height of appliances, countertops, and cupboards — all with an eye toward saving space, steps, and strain. Her ergonomically inspired linear layouts were instrumental to modern kitchen design, which is still basically oriented to L, C, and U shapes.

Lillian also invented the electric mixer, foot-pedal wastebasket, and compartmentalized shelves on refrigerator doors. To give homemakers a place to plan schedules, pay bills, and track household duties, she came up with the Gilbreth Management Desk.

It is lovely how Monica’s book begins with a poem, since Lillian was interested in poetry and first majored in English literature before earning her Ph.D. in psychology. This lively introduction to Lillian’s seminal contributions is peppered with just the kind of details that’ll whet the reader’s appetite for more (did you know Frank liked apple cake?).

The ‘Mother of Modern Management’ who designed the wonder kitchen was herself a wonder, one of the first ‘superwomen’ to combine a busy career with motherhood. Her pioneering work in ergonomics and organizational psychology (especially as it applied to household tasks) enabled women to seek paid employment and other pursuits outside the home.

Lillian Gilbreth (LOC photo via Grandma Got Stem)

I’m sure you’ll enjoy hearing how Monica became interested in Lillian Gilbreth, a little about her research for the book, and thoughts about David Parkins’s very cool pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations (love the cover illo especially because my kitchen also has a checkered floor, a baking center and is primarily green). Monica is also sharing a favorite cookie recipe.🙂

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♥ A CHAT WITH MONICA KULLING ♥

How did you come to choose Lillian Gilbreth for the Great Idea series? What impresses you most about her?

I wanted to add another female inventor to the mainly male cast. Margaret Knight’s story (In the Bag!) is popular with girls, so I’m hoping Lillian Gilbreth’s story will prove to be equally inspiring. There are plenty of women inventors, but finding one with the amount of material needed is a challenge. Mary Anderson, for example, invented the windshield wiper, but little else is known about her and, with only the one invention to her name, there isn’t enough grist for the mill. On the other hand, Lillian Gilbreth’s life offers enough material for several books!

What impresses me most about Lillian Gilbreth is her energy. She accomplished so much at a standard of perfection that is daunting.

Do tell us about some of the fun you had with research. Would you please share a few interesting details about her life and work that didn’t make it into the book?

I enjoyed reading the books written by the two older children, Frank and Ernestine, which give a glimpse into their actual everyday lives. I also watched the original 1950 movie Cheaper By the Dozen with Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb, which was fun.

Many details didn’t make it into the book, such as the fact that the couple decided to have twelve children—six boys and six girls—and, indeed, managed to do exactly that. Sadly, one girl, Mary, died at age six.

I wrote a scene set at the family’s summerhouse in Nantucket, which I liked, but which didn’t make it into the book. Papa and the kids often stood on their heads in the sand, a fact I thought kids might like. The lighthouse they lived in was called “the Shoe” after the rhyme, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.”

By most accounts, Lillian was a shy person who pursued higher education because she didn’t expect to get married. Why was she attracted to Frank, and why did they make such a great team?

Frank was ten years older and already a success in the field of time management. He was responsible for increasing the production, and saving the backs, of bricklayers by suggesting a scaffold, which was a new way to do the job. I think Lillian was attracted to his confidence and ambition. She was shy and retiring. He was all get-up-and-go. Together they made a great team because of their contrasting natures. Frank painted on a large canvas and Lillian took care of the details and the shadings, which are vital in their own right.

How did Gilbreth’s background in psychology inform and impact her work as an efficiency expert and industrial engineer?

Lillian Gilbreth’s focus was primarily the worker’s happiness or mental state while on the job, not so much the work they were doing and whether they might find ways to do it more quickly and efficiently. For her, efficiency without job satisfaction was a hollow thing. If individuals knew that the boss cared about their comfort on the job, they would give more of their attention to getting the job done in a timely manner. That was Lillian Gilbreth’s thinking.

Has reading and learning about her kitchen designs and inventions inspired you to change anything about the way you cook and work in your own kitchen?

I did find her inspirational! While I can’t afford to dive into a kitchen reno that would follow Gilbreth’s kitchen triangular plan, I enjoy applying some of her principles, such as, avoiding clutter on counters and in cupboards, putting a memory foam floor mat in front of the sink to make washing dishes less stressful on legs and feet. No, I don’t have an automatic dish washer! Lillian G. might approve of that. She used downtime to reflect, which is definitely what one can do when washing the pots and pans.

What’s your favorite Gilbreth invention and why?

I’m fond of the electric mixer, a machine that does its job on its own, much like a robot.

She has been called the first “Superwoman” able to successfully balance a demanding career with motherhood and household management. As far as you know, were there any naysayers among the children who rebelled against the well-oiled “Gilbreth System” being implemented in their own home?

The two older children, Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who wrote the books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes about the family, don’t mention any naysayers. But I’m sure there were mumblings and grumblings. How could there not be? It’s only natural! I mean, who wants to constantly keep in mind the best way to do a job, any job, even a pleasurable one such as having a bath? It’s mentally exhausting!

What do you like best about David Parkins’s illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?

This is the third book in the “Great Idea” series that David Parkins has illustrated, and he once again reveals his wit and sense of color and composition. When I first saw his work for In the Bag!, I thought I was viewing a PBS British drama. One is so drawn into each scene he illustrates. I really do love the cover image, which is taken from the spread that talks about Lillian’s job with the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company. This work saw Lillian G. come into her own, interviewing 4,000 women about their kitchens and then designing ones that were efficient, organized and comfortable to work in.

Anything else you’d like us to know about this wonderful book? 

I’m pleased that you liked Spic-and-Span! Perhaps you might tell your readers that this book is available for review on NetGalley.

What are you working on now?

I am currently (for the month of August) taking a break from writing, for the first time in years. However, come September, I’ll be back at my desk, once again looking for interesting and exciting people to introduce to young readers.

Please share a favorite recipe with a little back story about it.

My mother loved to bake, so there was always something sweet to eat when we came home from school. Here is a recipe, healthy, for her “Banana Oatmeal Cookies,” which I love. Think I’ll make a batch soon!

BANANA OATMEAL COOKIES

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup powdered skim milk
  • 1-1/2 cups sifted flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup wheat germ
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 cup ripe mashed bananas
  • 1-3/4 cups quick rolled oats (not the flaked type)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 well beaten egg
  • 3/4 cup butter

Method:

Sift dry ingredients together. Cut in butter as you would for a piecrust. Add egg, bananas, oats, and walnuts. Beat until thoroughly blended.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake in oven 400 degrees F. for 15 – 20 minutes or until done.

Remove from pan immediately. Yields about three dozen cookies.

🍪 🍪 🍪

 Thank you, Jama, for featuring Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen on your wonderful blog! I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to your many readers.

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SPIC-AND-SPAN!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen
written by Monica Kulling
illustrated by David Parkins
published by Tundra Books, August 2014
Picture Book Biography for ages 5-8, 32 pp.

* Monica Kulling’s Official Website

* Monica at Children’s Literature Network

* David Parkins’s Official Website

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* Interior spreads excerpted from Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen. Text copyright © 2014 Monica Kulling, illustrations © 2014 David Parkins, posted by permission of Tundra Books, a division of Random House of Canada, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

* Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

32 thoughts on “[Review and Author Chat]: Monica Kulling on Spic-and-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen

  1. I’ve read the original books & recommended them often to students, wanting them to see a different look at times years ago. I have Monica’s book since you first mentioned it, Jama, & enjoyed it, learned even more about Lillian Gilbreth! I didn’t know, however that this was a series. I’ll be sure to look for the other books too. Love that they have such lively illustrations! Thank you!

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    1. The Great Idea series sounds great and I need to read the other books too — there’s one about George Eastman, Otis (elevator inventor), Marconi, Elijah McCoy (steam engine) and Margaret Knight, who invented the paper bag as well as many other things.

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  2. And here I thought the only thing about “Cheaper by the Dozen” was that it was about a large family. I had no idea that there was so much more to the parents, especially the mom. Fascinating! Sounds like another winner for our public library!

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  3. I am so glad that during the wee hours of the morning I took the time to read this Jama. I must get this book. My knowledge of the Gilbreth family is confined to Cheaper by the Dozen. Your posts and interviews are so interesting. Thank you!

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  4. fascinating story! i remember watching the movie when i was very young – especially remember the bath demonstration! knowing how amazing lillian was is fantastic. and those illustrations – gorgeous!

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  5. I loved the book Cheaper by the Dozen when I was a kid — I think I read it several times. I was fascinated by Frank’s efficiency “suggestions.” I had no idea that Lillian was so active after Frank’s death. Sounds like a must-read book.

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  6. Wow, Jama, I learned so much from this post. First of all, how did I ever missing learning about this amazing woman? She sounds amazing and well ahead of her time. What a great topic for a children’s book. I hope it does well and many, many people get to read it! The illustrations are gorgeous as well. What a beautiful book. Thanks for posting such an inspiring and informational interview! Ps. and the cookies sound yummy too!🙂

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    1. I was amazed at all of Lillian’s achievements and wondered why I’d never heard about them before either. Looks like I need to actually read the Gilbreth children’s books (esp. Belles on Their Toes).

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