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!
Yep. The book that started it all, more or less, turns 75 next year. Published in late 1948, Cheaper by the Dozen was an instant best-seller... my treasured and worn copy is a sixth printing, dated just three months later.
It's hard to believe that when Cheaper was written, Frank Gilbreth had been gone less than 25 years. Lillian Gilbreth was at the peak of her career as "The First Lady of Engineering." All of the adult Dozen were still around. And only about half the grandchildren had been born.
Almost three times that distance into the future, we're almost on the centennial of Frank Gilbreth's passing (which, by the way, is my new target for publication of the book). The 75th anniversary of Cheaper is a landmark, and it's worth noting. I'm noting it with a new e-book (or, as I call them on the publishing side, a FreEbook) that harks back to the very start of my literary involvement with things Gilbreth.
Originally, about a decade ago, my thought was that Cheaper by the Dozen could use an annotated version. It is, after all, a book written in 1948 about events in the 1920s, and its wonderful stories were wrapped in a veil of family privacy since many of the 'characters' were still very much alive. So my first thought was to use my (then much less comprehensive) knowledge to write some gentle, amusing annotations about the people, places, events and era, to bring the stories to life for a fresh new audience and revive it for old readers. Many of the terms are now archaic to the point of being mystifying to anyone much under 40, and historical references may have lost their impact. And, too, there is just so much to tell about the (often wonderful) reality under those polished, well-told tales.
But that project quickly got away from those simple roots, and, well, you see the result elsewhere on this site. But when I realized the 75th anniversary was on us, and that full-scale book still a bit in the future, I thought again that a lovely treat (and teaser) for readers right now would be... that 'annotated Cheaper by the Dozen.'
A combined publication was not in the cards, so I've prepared a 'reader's companion' — something I've done before, for other authors. It's meant to be kept at your elbow as you read or re-read Cheaper, and page by page, chapter by chapter, fill in the details, the forgotten lingo and the charming real history of many of the family events.
This will be published only in Kindle format for convenient electronic reading along with your treasured copy of Cheaper by the Dozen.
Cheaper by the Dozen at 75: a 75th Anniversary Reader's Companion for One of America's Best-Loved Books can be found at this link to Nitrosyncretic Press, and hereon Amazon. It is available in Kindle e-book format only.
In choosing the title of the forthcoming book and, by association, the parent website here and nearly everything else connected to this sprawling project, I did not select the subtitle casually or through any sense of bombast. The Gilbreth, Bunker, Delger and Moller families that make up the tree of our principal figures is truly 'an extraordinary American family'—and continues to astound me.
In unraveling the story of a slightly secondary character, Frank's aunt and Martha's artist younger sister Caroline “Kit” Bunker, I encountered another family member who by all my rules and limits should get no more than a passing mention. My rule of thumb is that unless a family member or other figure has a substantial impact on the story of Frank, Lillian and the Dozen, they are given a brief sketch, or less, or simply bypassed in the goal of keeping this book focused. But in this case one brief mention led to one chance discovery led to... well, a family figure who deserves to be remembered.
In sorting out where Caroline Bunker lived from about 1870 through her death in 1906—and as on so many points, the family lore and most accounts that rely on it have some issues—I came across another sister whose story likely has no real impact on ours, but was too exceptional to leave out altogether.
In 1880, in the first or second year of running the Boston boardinghouse, Martha had some 26 boarders and two servants, making the household complement some 31 in all. One of them is a Mary Bunker. Although the census records her age as 48, everything else points to this being Martha and Kit's oldest sister. Mary Bunker was born in 1828 and thus would have been 52, but my experience has been that the hand-collected and -written census data has to be taken with a little flexibility. It is unlikely to me that a woman of this name, approximate age, born in Maine, with two parents born in Maine is just a random Mary Bunker of no connection to our family. (Ages and names in census records are often incorrect; Tom Grieves was once recorded as the family's "butler"; the entire Gilbreth household is recorded on one census as the "Gelbretti" family. QED.)
This would be worth no more mention than the in-law sibling Mary A. Gilbreth, who was an unmarried dressmaker and seamstress of about the same age who lived with Martha and the children in their first year in Boston, boarding with Olivia Gilbreth Flynt and her husband. The most interesting thing I have found about Mary A. is her unusual will, which left everything to her boardinghouse landlady. She was, unfortunately, one of those people who simply existed quietly and left few tracks behind her.
However, Mary Bunker is yet another of the women in the family who were conspicuously ahead of their time in multiple ways, and despite her brief and casual connection to our main subjects, I could not leave her out. At the moment, I can't bring myself to give her a full biographical sidebar in the book, but included her in Kit's entry as, well, a sort of sidebar to a sidebar. That may well change if I soften my firm rules about who's included, and how.
Mary Bunker is listed in all complete genealogical records and all censuses from 1830 to 1880, but it is her brief description in Frank Jr's 1993 Ancestors of the Dozen that first sets her above most of her thirteen siblings. (Martha, Caroline and the oldest son Samuel are the only others of much interest to us.) He says:
“First taught school at age fourteen. Principal of school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Spent twenty-five years as teacher and principal of the Science Hill Female Academy in Shelbyville, Kentucky.”
Ancestors of the Dozen, p.120
As nearly as I can assemble all the census and other data, Mary taught and became the principal in Roxbury by age 21 or 22, then joined the school in Kentucky in about 1845, and likely retired when it was sold to a new administrator in 1879. It is the 1880 census that places her in Boston. Now, 30 years of teaching and serving as principal or headmistress is a truly admirable accomplishment, but it was not extremely unusual for women of the era who had a good education—in this case, Anson Academy, which all of the Bunker children attended—and did not marry.
What is unusual and what places Mary in the category of her sisters and others warranting special attention is that the school was not only a fine, science-focused school in an era when that was a rarity, and not even the rarer institution still that admitted girls, but one exclusive to them. Founded in 1825(!) in what was still a frontier town, its administrator was determined to teach more than the 'gentlewomanly arts' to which girls' education was typically limited; the school did so for some 114 years, 25 early ones under Mary Bunker's contributions. To me, this puts her on a level with Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, Dr. Lillian Delger-Powers, Kit Bunker, Dr. Jane Bunker, Olivia Flynt, Kit, and even Martha as women who were truly exceptional and accomplished in a time that did not much allow or encourage women to be either. So it is with pleasure that I include her, however slight the connection to our main story, and I'm happy to toss her story out here as well.
I won't go into the history of Science Hill Female Academy, as there are two good web resources you can read for yourself:
Neither mentions Mary Bunker, but I am following a lead on an early yearbook/catalog that will surely add some confirmation and details. Check back soon, but for now, read those two histories, and the above, marvel at this exceptional woman, and fully understand that "extraordinary" label I've chosen.
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A noted novelist, Tom McCarthy, has just published a new novel—which wouldn't have much to do with things Gilbreth except that Lillian Gilbreth is a significant supporting character, along with the Gilbreths' motion study work.
Well, actually... a character named Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth is in the novel, but while she is mostly recognizable as our favorite mother and engineer, the details of her life and work are somewhat misrepresented. So the capsule review is Yay! for recognizing and remembering her, but Arrgh! for presenting her so curiously it's probably an honor that should have been skipped.
Let's back up. McCarthy's novel, The Making of Incarnation, is very loosely about the making of a CGI-dripping space movie (Incarnation) in the model of Star Wars, and even more so about the depths of the technology (mostly motion capture) used to make such films in the current era. And depths they are: any Cal Tech undergrad will be thrilled with the technical details and terms. Readers who attended lesser technical schools... may be lost very quickly. A large amount of the novel reads like a feature article for a high-end science magazine; my impression was Tom Clancy Writes a Tech Novel. (Instead of his usual military novel that includes complete weapons manuals etc.)
It is, in pretty much every respect, a science fiction novel. However, in these days of high literary aspiration and disdain for that moldy old literary ghetto, very few name writers who issue novels that would have once been shelved with Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke allow the term to come anywhere near their Booker Prize-candidate works. (McCarthy has been shortlisted for several of these very prestigious awards.) Thus, works from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to most of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem's books are literature, not sc**nc* f*ct**n. And here we have what is all but an archetypal sf novel, but presented as a new entry in the distinguished capital-L category instead. But that's something of a side discussion that's best taken up by the smoldering rage of the noted science fiction and fantasy writers I know.
Being an extraordinarily literary work from a literature-award nominee and a major literary publisher, it is of course written in literary style. There are various ways to describe styles such as this, but my touchstone is none other than science fiction writer and generally incredibly insightful and erudite polymath Isaac Asimov. He was aware of his own faults as a writer—a very, very plain style, mainly—and he once described the difference between the ends of the spectrum as "plate glass writing" —such as his style, which had no color of its own but clearly showed the story beneath—and "stained glass writing," in which the language and style and writing is often the main character of the work, with the story more of a framework to hold it.
I read and admire both styles. My preference is for very clear writing telling a superb story, but I can very much appreciate the best in literary writing. Both Atwood and Chabon, for example, tell fabulously shaped stories of the first rank, and in language so gorgeous it's not uncommon to hit a sentence or paragraph that literally makes me gasp, pause and re-read it just for the pleasure of doing so. But neither author ever lets their deft and artful style and language-play get in the way of telling the extraordinary story of Offred or Meyer Landsman.
When I get a chapter into a novel and realize I've spent more time waltzing with the style than following the story, I often apply the rule of yet another science fiction writer of my one-time acquaintance, Steven Brust; Brust's Law boils down to "Life is too short for bad books." To brust a book—that's "broost," by the way—is to toss it without finishing it, and without apologies to the author, fellow readers, the library or the thrift store to which it is donated. There's about a year of online discussion behind the nuances of the Law, but we'll skip onwards here.
I would have brusted The Making of Incarnation within the first two chapters, returning it for the next eager library patron, had I not the need to see how McCarthy addressed Lillian Gilbreth. (I was alerted to her presence in the novel by a grandchild of Frank and Lillian, and of course instantly went to my library's hold page to snag a copy, less than a month after its issue.) With all due apology to Mr. McCarthy and all literary writers, I found his style nearly unreadable, especially when the vocabulary was tomorrow's jargon in MIT and Cal Tech research labs. It is, beneath the smothering style and language use, almost impossible to follow the actual story line. Indeed, the story seems to be something of a sketch, almost an afterthought, just a means to use this bewildering combination of distant third-person narrative and technojargon—and use it to Present Ideas.
And something of one more aside before we get to the main topic, here. The more or less focus of the novel, as said, is a hyper-advanced space action movie called Incarnation, loosely described as something like Star Wars, with super-science space ships and galactic princesses and so forth. McCarthy spends a fair amount of time and space (see what I did there?) outlining the movie from a script and production viewpoint, describing characters and the main spaceship and the techno-action in some detail. Now... I am willing to credit McCarthy with perhaps having a little fun with the sf crowd, especially the media/film sf crowd, from which he and his publisher so strenuously wish to distance themselves. But then again, given his somewhat tin ear on other points, I suspect Mr. McCarthy has never seen, or at least much appreciated, a Star Wars movie or any of its many kin (he references recent films such as Interstellar as well). His description of the plot and characters—which his own characters are using extraordinary, bleeding-edge technology to make as real as possible—is that of a high-school student who dislikes science fiction, has never seen any of these movies, and whose research was three quick paragraphs from Wikipedia and disdainful conversation with fellow sf-haters. I myself am indifferent about all the Star Wars movies, despite having seen the original some 13 times in its first year of release, and my sf writer acquaintances will likely be quick to categorize McCarthy, this novel and especially these clumsy passages of 'movie treatment' as the ineptitude of someone who wants to play in the science fiction sandbox without either the grounding to do so nor any wish to get sand in their socks. (If that's too remote and encapsulated for you, dear non-sf-reader, imagine it as a parallel with an author who wants to write the ultimate gay romance novel without knowing anyone who is gay, trying strenuously to avoid any taint of the "romance" genre and doing everything to establish that they themselves are not and never will be gay.)
The TL;DR summary here—that's "[Your Post Was] Too Long; Didn't Read [It]"—is that, again with all due apologies, Mr. McCarthy's novel is nothing I would read, recommend or think of in any terms but as another international literary prize lottery ticket. Best of luck to him. Seriously. We all have empty spaces on our mantels holding dreams.
But we're here because McCarthy chose Lillian Gilbreth as his make-real anchor for a major part of the story's development and dilemmas, and we're kind of all about the Gilbreths here, so let's turn to that aspect.
To summarize the reason for Lillian's presence, a great deal of the novel is taken up with ultra-advanced motion capture technology that allows filmmakers to use scanty sets, stand-in body actors and massive CGI to create "sci fi"—*retch*— worlds of dazzling complexity, with the named actors merely contributing spoken lines and scans of their faces to be pasted on the CGI characters. (McCarthy's not too wrong in presenting this wryly; it is where movies have been increasingly headed.) In wishing to patent some of the new techniques, the team is feverishly researching prior patent art that might invalidate the claims. (McCarthy has long asides about 1930s actors who successfully defended copyright infringement on technical grounds, decades later, and the like.)
Which leads, of course, all the way back to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their pioneering use of photos and then film to record worker motions in the endless quest to find The One Best Way to do every task. So one of the main characters begins to deeply investigate the Gilbreths, looking for hooks that might drag down their present-day patent claims.
Well, not "the Gilbreths," exactly, since the work was all Lillian's, with Frank's unschooled and inept help in some early days.
What, you didn't know that?
It is of course both fair and common game to weave real persons into novels, whether they are carefully used in their proper place and with historical authenticity, or turned into Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. We can enjoy the latter because we are pretty sure Abe wasn't a vampire hunter, and separate the fun fiction from the careful framing facts. President Ulysses Grant shows up in every post Civil War setting, especially TV shows from The Wild Wild West to Hell on Wheels, and is often bent whichever way that week's episode demands, with little respect paid to authenticity. We might not be quite as familiar with Grant, but the misuse is either inconsequential or obviously fictionalized. The poster boy for this treatment is probably Nikola Tesla, who has been slowly elevated from being the fearsomely brilliant inventor of AC power (and, honestly, very little else) to being the secret/suppressed inventor of every technology to come for the next century and a half, possibly even an alien or time traveler. Most people probably have very little idea which stories about Tesla are true and which are the creation of his goshwoggled fans and fictioneers. (Hint: they're mostly the latter.)
So when McCarthy takes a real figure, Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth, and installs her in his literate technothriller mystery, there is the problem that she is—unfortunately—not as well-remembered a figure as she should be, and very few readers are going to be able to distinguish her real history from McCarthy's inventions and changes. Many will carry away a very distorted notion of not only her, but Frank Gilbreth and the nature of their groundbreaking work together.
To summarize the biography of Lillian Gilbreth, fictional character [McCarthy, 2021], she was a motion studies pioneer who used film, finger lights and wire motion models (of which she made uncounted hundreds) to advance the vague notions of her short, fat, uneducated husband, who had a few inspiring ideas in that direction. She then unlocked the secrets of the universe and stored them in box #808 of her vast archives, a box which was then whisked away to Indiana Jones' government warehouse (or Lafayette, Indiana) as too dangerous for mortal men to possess. But she continued to use the film-based processes for years after Frank was kind enough to get out of the way, as part of her distinguished career helping, among others, the handkerchief girls of Hermann, Aukam.
Where to begin. How about... nowhere in this sad mess of nothing-trues? Except to say that McCarthy, in structuring his tale of lost secrets and pointillist, bead-mosaic writing, managed to turn Lillian into an unrecognizable figure, the very sister of Prometheus, and complete the reduction of Frank to an annoying roadblock of no importance.
I have read perhaps three novels that centered on a subject in which I have a high degree of expertise, and like most in that position I could clearly see the lines of the author's research; more to the point, I could see the unexplored edges, the limitations of real understanding and often pinpoint the exact page from which a character's exposition was taken. It's kind of fun to be there, and it's been even more fun to needle the author a little about it. I suppose, in a long career, I've written researched things in which a real SME—subject matter expert, to use this week's jargon—would find equal hilarity at my obviously cribbed knowledge, and I'd never try to bluff my way out of any such challenge.
I have to get in one of my favorite stories about this. Sometime in the 1940s or 50s, a famous editor—maybe Bennett Cerf—had an interview with a potential author whose field was... oh, say, 12th century Chinese porcelain. Not wishing to seem too stupid, Cerf quickly read up on the topic and felt he acquitted himself well during the interview. As the expert/author was leaving, though, he turned to Cerf and asked, "So, tell me, Bennett... what time today did you read my encyclopedia article on Chinese porcelain?"
In reading McCarthy's novel, I can easily spot his influences, down to the likely chapter each facet of Lillian, Frank and the family history was taken. (Quite a bit from plain old Cheaper by the Dozen.) To his credit, though, it seems very clear that he visited the Purdue archives and read at least some small sampling of the unpublished correspondence, finding passages that support his fanciful fabulation of the fictional Lillian. (Some could be invented, too, as well—but that I don't recognize the specific source of most of this correspondence is still a point to McCarthy's credit.) For one thing, a character makes such a journey to Purdue and some spooky story twists aside (such as being thrown out when she gets Too Close to The Truth), it reads very much like an autobiographical account; he was there.
However... all of the quotes from Lillian's correspondence are from letters written to... her sister Vera.
Lillian had five surviving sisters, none named (or even nick/family-named) Vera.
It is baffling to me why McCarthy would go to great lengths with the material, and then assign it, pointlessly, to a fictional correspondent. Why not just her sister Elinor? Or her father or mother? Or one of her professional colleagues, some of whom are quite distinguished names that would add a keen gloss to the telling?
In the same way, McCarthy weaves in details that are well below the casual-research, Wikipedia-at-midnight level. He notes the couple had thirteen children... "of whom twelve survived." Both halves are true, as far as the narrow statement goes, and the first part not widely known, but really, there were only eleven survivors. It feels like McCarthy missed the turn there, following the facts off a cliff.
And finally, as hinted above, McCarthy completely and totally rewrites the history of Frank and Lillian's collaboration on motion studies. In his telling, Frank was that short, fat, uneducated bricklayer who had developed some monkey-sense ideas... but all development and refinement of those ideas was Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth, Ph.D., gifted psychologist and trained literary writer, etc. She developed the film methods of motion study, the refinement of finger lights to track motions, and created uncounted hundreds of wire motion models now scattered across multiple archives. Frank... well, Frank finally just died and got out of her way.
It is fairly clear to me that McCarthy read only, or focused on, the late, feminist-revisionism biographies of Lillian and took them at face value, with their arguments that Frank contributed little, suppressed her real abilities, blocked her career advancement and nefariously saddled her with continual pregnancy. Whether from that influence or his own choice to structure this oddly solo protean figure he could praise and then marionette through his complex narrative, it's not clear. But the Lillian of his novel is a Vampire Hunter, a Future Space Alien, not an efficiency engineer; she is a noble Jeanne d'Arc or Marianne, not a wife, mother, partner or acolyte of a brilliant man who was smart enough to include her on his journey into new lands and see her begin to surpass him even before his premature death.
And again, my concern here is not that McCarthy has written a novel—even a vastly artistic, style-driven, prize-seeking novel—or that he was not doggedly accurate about Lillian, Frank or their work. It's that he's created a high-profile portrait of a real person that is somewhere between highly fictionalized and borderline nonsense, and the real person underneath is both important and worthy of better remembrance... and unknown enough that most readers will not be able to sort the thin reality from McCarthy's wild fabulizing. This is a 21st Century example of Mencken's bathtub hoax, and could become just as cemented into the wall of Everybody Knows.
My only comfort here, as one of a relatively small number of writers seeking to fully restore Lillian, Frank, the entire family and all their contributions to our modern world to a much wider understanding, is that McCarthy's novel, prima facie, is just too unappealing to find a very wide audience that will be misinfluenced... and I don't really care what the literary judges might believe.
The punch line, to me, is this: McCarthy could have woven in Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their work with fanatical attention to historical accuracy... and his story would have worked just as well. Just as with the revisionist biographers, there was simply no need to turn either partner into something they were not; the reality is fabulous and enlightening enough.
Something I hope to tell the world someday soon, on at least as large a stage as McCarthy's.
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.
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:
Yes, white photographed a little better, especially under office conditions. But that's secondary.
Of course it was psychology, and...
No, Frank was not the person to ask about that... just maybe Mom was.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!