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Welcome to the Bunker(s)!

After some time of posting information only on the static portion of the website, I find I'd like to have a more flexible portal to visitors, so that I can write about changes, progress and amusing findings with a little more ease. So here it is: the Gilbreth Bunker.

And yes, that's a terrible pun, as any slightly informed visitor will note. It's also misleading, in that my work here covers not just the Gilbreth and Bunker families of Frank's side, but the Delger and Moller families of Lillian's side as well. But this is just a casual blog of my research and interesting findings, so I hope visitors won't mind the playful approach.

Comments are welcome on my posts by all visitors, without any need to register as a user, but will be subject to manual moderation and may thus take a few hours to a day to approve and appear. (Sorry; open comment systems are no longer possible in this era of bots searching for places to drop their loads of pollution.)

But please... do bookmark, check back occasionally, read and comment as you see appropriate!

In researching material for the book, I often come across fascinating side stories that I have to condense to as little as a sentence, if not something as small as an anchor date or other minor datum. It seems a waste to let these little vignettes vanish back into the archives, so I think I'm going to start doing short writeups of the best.

Typewriting Efficiency

Anyone who's read Cheaper by the Dozen will remember the chapter on speed typewriting, in which Dad brings home a white typewriter and offers prizes to whichever child learns to type the fastest. There's an element of truth in this story, but as with so much in the charming family lore books, the intersection of their version, truth and completeness isn't a large one.

Frank and Lillian did indeed work with typewriter companies, primarily Remington, just before WWI. One outcome was a highly-trained typist who won a national speed championship that year, and then three out of the following four years, a PR coup for Remington.

That wasn't the end, though. The Gilbreths continued to work on office workplace efficiency for several years, first for basic jobs like type-writers (the person, not the tool) and then adapting the tasks for disabled soldiers with one arm, or a pair of manipulator hooks, or the like. But it's astonishing to see how much of modern ergonomics Frank Gilbreth anticipated and helped develop, as in this article from an October 1917 Popular Science Monthly:

Not just all the proper efficiencies of how to sit at a keyboard desk, but the “modern” innovation of a standing desk... with a simple ability to switch between sitting and standing!

Pretty cool, eh?

White by Design

Oh, by the way... in Cheaper the typewriter is white, and the reason why is reduced (in typical family-lore fashion) to a mysterious comment by Dad that "It photographs better... and anyone who sees a white typewriter wants to type on it. Don't ask me why. It's psychology.”

Now, I could spend all day unpacking that statement, but here's the cheat sheet version:

  1. Yes, white photographed a little better, especially under office conditions. But that's secondary.
  2. Of course it was psychology, and...
  3. No, Frank was not the person to ask about that... just maybe Mom was.
  4. But it was white for another carefully chosen efficiency reason: the Gilbreths had found that high contrast in the work area, such as white paper in a black typewriter, created greater fatigue. They recommended that Remington paint its typewriters white to reduce fatigue. (They also recommended that factory machinery and surroundings be all one light color like gray, no matter how easy black walls etc. were to keep looking clean.)

And there you have it.

I was so pleased to add that one entry to the FBG Construction Projects list... and then I set out to dump my research files into a separate wiki. My intention was to enable public access, provide a basis for further research, and, well, just sort of get the darned thing off my virtual desk.

But of course I had to check a few details, and look up one more thing, and what should have been two or three days of putting data in wiki folders turned into six weeks of long days as the new research dragged me to deeper and deeper levels.

I won't recount the work blow by blow; I simply point you to the new addition here, the FBG Project Wiki. It contains — ready? — 100 entries for known construction projects by Frank B. Gilbreth.

A hundred. That's up from about 94, even with the recently added one, and after removing two (one was an inadvertent duplicate, and the other went into a catchall entry for unverified projects). So in just following up, I found six or seven completely new, previously-forgotten projects out there... and a couple of them are doozies.

I also found more information on some of the projects for which I'd only found sketchy material. All it takes is finding one key clue, and then the search is easy.

I think I have now found at least a hint of every FBG project; at least, I'd be surprised if anything turns up that's as much of a surprise as some of these new ones were. Part of that is in that catchall entry, number 000, which contains eight “maybe” or “potential” projects. Each one has at least one piece of evidence, usually a trade job notice or call for workers that I can't match in time or location to any known project. At least one of them might be a substantial facility Frank Gilbreth built for his own purposes... I'm running down more information on that one.

In any case, if you have any remaining doubt that Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr was a significant man of his day, and would be remembered even if he'd never had twelve (or so) children or become one of the founding titans of efficiency engineering, a look through this list of important US (and Canadian) construction projects will convince you.

It's fascinating stuff, and I consider every minute of a very long research process worthwhile in having restored this segment of history to public knowledge.

Run take a look!

As noted, I worked on the Gilbreth construction history and the resulting paper (not to mention the copious amount of material that's going into the book) for something like two years. That was well over a year of primary research, a few months of writing the submission draft of the paper, then the usual journal tango as it went back and forth with mostly cuts to fit Construction History Journal's length needs. But much of that time was static; I'd done the research, written it up for my needs, drafted the paper and moved on.

And the day after I sent back the final page proofs... I found another Gilbreth construction project. Even knowing that there are likely more yet undiscovered, it was a truly head-smacking moment.

It's not one of great consequence but it does have interesting aspects, and it adds to the list of Gilbreth works still standing and in use. I am also the first to connect it to Frank Gilbreth since the days when it was first built. Although the building is well-known and recognized for its history and its origins at the hands of architects Martin & Hall, the builder—who was even then of some note—was forgotten.

The clue was found in my usual way, sifting the digitzed record of the construction and engineering journals for a specific period. In this case, I was trying to fill in that annoying gap between 1899–1902 in which Frank Gilbreth (and Frank B. Gilbreth, General Contractor) were either on holiday or simply drew no notice for their work. What popped up was a single contract notice for a building in Providence, Rhode Island, which turned out to be both standing and something of a local treasure.

The October 1903 contract notice was that FBG had been given the job of "razing several buildings and erecting a brick 5-story business block" at the corner of Chestnut and Clifford Streets in Providence. So besides several attempts at finding collateral references (none found), I made the usual journey to that location using Google Streets. There were four brick buildings on the multiple corners of the somewhat complicated intersection, and one looked to be of the right age and style. (Another was far too modern, and another looked far too new.)

So the next step, without finding any useful information in digitized archives, is to contact local history and architectural groups in the area and hope one of them knows something. In this case, it was Google Maps that pointed out that an architectural firm with some specialty in historic renovation overlooked the intersection from another building. A polite inquiry brought back a wealth of information from a local architectural historian who leads walking tours of what is now known as Providence's Jewelry District.

And I had the wrong building; the venerable structure I'd put my finger (okay, mouse pointer) on was both older (ca. 1888) and had been built in stages. So I was pleased to receive a prompt reply from the local building preservation society, which pointed me to the correct building: the one on the opposite corner that looked far too new to be of 1903 vintage:

The Irons-Russell Building of 1903, as renovated (and possibly refaced) into loft condos in 2018. The original wraparound storefront remains.

But to collapse the rest of the story, the building Gilbreth built here was for Irons-Russell, one of the first jewelry manufacturers (if not the first) to site their business in what became the Jewelry District, filled with similar manufacturers and wholesalers until around WWII. The building included factory space, business space for the firm itself, the full-width storefront seen above, and several floors of space rented to other businesses.

It was the first building in Providence constructed to be “all electric” and included a birdcage elevator that is still in place (and was renovated along with the building... but is apparently not used due to code issues). It also used an innovative heating system that directed heat across the tables of the jewelry factory for the comfort (and winter productivity, no doubt) of the employees.

The building was renovated under historic preservation guidelines into loft condos in 2017–18, and both the original elevator and terrazzo tiling in public areas retained. The “new” look apparently comes from a full refinishing or refacing of the two outer walls, seen above; a peek around the corner from the parking lot shows much more weathered brick betraying the building's 120-year age.

Another forgotten and remembered triumph for FBG, found one day too late. But the search for more such works continues.

Frank B. Gilbreth Jr wrote more about the family than perhaps any other person—not just the two famous books of family lore, with his sister Ernestine, but a third such book, a formal genealogy and several other books of autobiography and family history. We are indebted to him (and “Ernie”) for giving us this long, lush look at the internal world of the Gilbreth family.

But for a variety of reasons Frank Jr did not always tell the whole story, nor (sometimes) quite the actual truth. He was, after all, writing for entertainment and writing about what could have been very sensitive topics among his siblings. Lillian was also alive through all but his last two books of family stories, and her sensibilities were carefully regarded in the way he told certain tales.

But beyond that light fictionalizing for entertainment and circumspection for family privacy, Frank Jr occasionally just omitted a few things... maybe in the name of story flow and maybe for personal reasons. For whichever of those or other reasons, he omitted a fairly important passage from his 1951 autobiography I'm A Lucky Guy. Therein, he simply says he pursued his first wife, Elizabeth, to her home town of Charleston SC, married her, and went to work for the News & Courier.

What he leaves out is that after a short stint at that venerable newspaper, he quit, and with two of his brothers in law, founded a new paper for the city. It quickly failed, and he went back to the News & Courier. The only clue to this effort is in Lillian Gilbreth's desultory autobiographical notes, published only fairly recently under the title As I Remember (written about 1941, first published in 1998). Therein, in outlining her oldest son's life and career, she says about as much as I summarized in that first sentence... and no more.

For quite some time, I searched records to see if this short-lived newspaper had left any mark (and, for that matter, had actually existed). All I could come up with was the Charleston Star, published about 1936... no further information available, no confirmation that this was actually the Gilbreth/Cauthen effort. None of the institutions that archive old newspapers had any record, much less any copies.

And then in a routine followup, I managed to hit on one slightly obscure archive in South Carolina which not only had the full run of the paper on microfilm, but was almost as much in the dark about its history and principals as I was. An archivist was kind enough to provide a full PDF of the microfilm's contents, and... there it was.

First page of the first issue of the Charleston Star. The column at right is almost certainly Frank Gilbreth Jr's writing.

For unknown reasons, the paper never included a formal masthead (which, by the way, is the listing of publisher, editors, etc. usually found on an inside page of most rags, and not the banner title atop the first page). So it was not quite as simple as looking at the list of culprits in any issue; there wasn't one.

But it didn't take long to find an article bylined Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., and many more bylined by the Cauthen brothers. Although Frank Jr's byline is quite rare thereafter, there are many pseudonymous and un-bylined feature and history columns that seem to be his work. The paper launched on December 1, 1935 and its last issue seems to be that of July 31, 1936. The lack of a masthead was probably a subterfuge to conceal that the staid journal was the work of just three overworked reporter/editor/publishers. But, without question, the short-lived Charleston Star was what Lillian referred to, and what its (probable) publisher and managing editor delicately excised from his life history.

If anyone has any comments or questions about the Star and doesn't want to wait for my book, please do post or ask them here or drop me a line. I will be happy to answer anything I can, and to point serious researchers to the SC institution where they can request the full archive.


Besides the satisfaction of finding yet another important but forgotten detail of Gilbreth family life, I had two small pleasures stem from this discovery. First, I was able to provide the archive with all of the above contextual information and more for their (possibly unique) holding.

And second, I was able to forward the archive to Frank B. Gilbreth's son (Frank and Lillian's grandson), who although a Charleston newspaper executive and columnist himself, had only hazy stories of his father's failed swing at independent journalism, and had never so much as seen a copy of the Star. I am, of necessity, taking much from the family's long history and both published and archived materials; it's a real pleasure to be able to give something back.

I am greatly pleased to announce that my lengthy paper on Frank Gilbreth's construction companies, history and works has finally reached print in the UK-based Construction History Journal. As with all such things, it took a while—almost two full years—to get through the acceptance, editing and publication cycle, but there it is!

I regret that I can't simply post a full offprint of the article, but a summary of its core information, the list of over ninety construction works by the three companies of Frank B. Gilbreth, can be found here in the Essays section.

The takeaway here for most readers is that Frank Gilbreth was not briefly in the construction trade (as the vast number of academic writings imply) nor was his success just boasting (as the family lore books imply) but one of America's most successful, innovative and prolific commercial builders at the turn of the 20th Century. From the founding of his own company in 1895 to his turn to the more famous career of efficiency engineering and management consulting about 1912, “Frank B. Gilbreth, General Contractor” built some ninety projects across the U.S., most of large to very large scale.

Frank B. Gilbreth, General Contractor's masterpiece: the $2 million Champion Fibre paper plant built in 1908 from empty riverbottom land in Canton, North Carolina. It was at the time the largest paper plant in the world. It is still in operation.

I started off researching this side topic with the idea that construction was indeed a brief and largely inconsequential passage in Frank's life, and that his projects, if any, were long since demolished. Two years of research later, I found the truth to be almost the complete opposite. The appearance of this paper is sure to shake up the management history field simply by awakening it to the sturdy presence of Frank Gilbreth's first career and its impact on all that followed. (The inquiries have already started despite the journal not yet having been filed with JSTOR and other acacdemic repositories.)

If the essay—just a list, really—doesn't answer enough of your questions about Frank's construction era and the works he built, many of which stand and are in use today, please do ask in a comment or drop me a note. I'm happy to chat about the topic!