Sunday, January 1, 2012

Book Review: Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (1948)

Cheaper by the Dozen is the 1948 memoir of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who, along with their 10 other siblings, were the children of time and motion study and efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. The book relates a series of charmingly funny anecdotes from the Gilbreth kids’ childhood in Montclair, New Jersey, focusing chiefly on the love shared between their parents and their father’s wonderfully larger-than-life personality. From the car rides in the family automobile, Foolish Carriage, to Mrs. Gilbreth’s amusing encounter with proponents of birth control, to the older girls’ ingenious capture of a peeping Tom, this book makes the reader feel as though he or she is one of the family, and in on all of the family jokes.

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, which was released in 1994 and narrated by Dana Ivey. Ivey’s voice is perfectly suited to the story, and the various voices she provides for each of the distinct characters really helped me to get a fuller picture of their personalities and senses of humor. The only criticism I have of the audiobook is that it incorporates a lot of background music at the beginning of each chapter, which overpowers and distracts the listener from the words being spoken.

The text itself is interesting in that there is no clear narrator. The narrative voice often speaks in the first person plural, as though representing the children as a unit, but both Ernestine and Frank are called by their first names, as are all the others, so we never know for sure who is speaking. This may have bothered me in the beginning when I was still trying to sort out the cast of characters, but by the middle of the book, I stopped trying to figure it out and really started to enjoy that constant feeling of being immersed in a crowd of wild and lively Gilbreths.

Mr. Gilbreth definitely stands out as the star of the book, and his stubbornness combined with his desire to have his children perform efficiently create some of the greatest comic moments of the book and many of the book’s most quotable lines. I suspect that not every detail about his character is 100% true, and maybe not every statement is quoted with 100% accuracy, but it doesn’t matter because what comes across to the reader is the love he felt for his kids, and vice versa, and the way in which his ideas about child-rearing affected everyone in the family.

I can remember trying to read this book as a kid and becoming lost because I didn’t understand the time period, or even some of the language. Because of this experience, I do wonder if kids today would have the same problem. The audio version of the story is wonderful, though, and could easily help reluctant readers of this book get invested and involved in the story. I think it’s also one of those rare books that can be equally enjoyed by children, teens, and adults.

This book might be old, but the language is far from stodgy, and the childhood memories the authors describe are so vivid, kids will find it very easy to imagine life as a Gilbreth. I’m disappointed in myself for not reading this book sooner, and I recommend it very highly.


  1. This is a longtime favorite of mine--I also own the sequel "Belles on Their Toes" and a book Frank Jr wrote on his own that fills in a lot of interesting details "Time Out For Happiness".

    Gave this one to my almost 17 yr old as one of her Christmas presents--I had watched the film with her recently--not the Steve Martin obscenity, but the real thing with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.
    "As usual, the book is much better than the movie,"I told her.
    And she agreed.Smart girl :D

  2. Loved this book as a tween (and played Ernestine in my high school's production of the play!). You've inspired me to go back and reread it!