Inventive Author, Inventive Subject

Spic-And-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2014


The Great Ideas series from Tundra Books presents the lives of inventors, some overlooked, and asks readers to think about their persistence, courage, and creativity. Written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by several different gifted artists, they are also notable for their colorful and exciting approach to technology in the eras before STEM was a buzzword.  In Spic-And-Spam! Kulling and illustrator David Parkins approach the life of efficiency manager and homemaker Lillian Gilbreth, best known as the heroine of Cheaper by the Dozen. Kulling and Parkins take her aside from the shadow of her husband and chronicle the life she sought and achieved, one “of adventure and challenge.”

Lillian Moller Gilbreth gradually came to defy convention as the circumstances of her life changed.  She married Frank Gilbreth in 1904, and they eventually had twelve children. She earned a doctorate in applied psychology, and was a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering, a field that was just emerging at the time. Early on, Lillian and Frank had used principals of time management (learned from Frederick Winslow Taylor, although he is not mentioned in this book) to ensure structure and efficiency in their home. After Frank died in 1924, Lillian actively sought professional opportunities to support her family.


She was employed by Macy’s department store, where she redesigned their cash management system.  She worked for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and used information from interviews with thousands of women to radically redesign the kitchens where women spent so much of their time.  Given that this is a children’s book, some consequences of the Gilbreth’s time management systems are simplified. While Kulling emphasizes the concerns that they had for workers’ safety and comfort, many industrial laborers felts oppressed by what they experienced as a harsh and impersonal approach to production:

“The Gilbreths used a new invention – the motion picture camera – to film a worker on the job.  Then they studied the film to see if the worker was making unnecessary movements.  They discovered that cutting out wasteful actions was the way to get more done and be less tired.”


This passage omits the perspective of the worker, perhaps reduced from an autonomous human being to a cog in a machine, as Charlie Chaplin famously portrayed him in the movie, Modern Times. 

David Parkins’ illustrations are incredible.  He combines comic book style caricature with detail, depth, and perspective.  In one picture, a lonely and small Lillian crosses a Manhattan street, holding a briefcase as she seeks much-needed employment.  Detailed images in blue and sepia of city buildings, cars, and trolleys define the locations, while the faces on passersby have exaggerated expressions.  The interior scenes of homes and offices are uncanny in their illusion of three dimensions. Lillian stands in a kitchen, notebook in hand, observing her surroundings. The square tiled floor is slanted to foreground her figure, and intricately drawn appliances and objects surround her, faithfully reproducing the era, with its early electric fan, stout refrigerator, and table on wheels.  The table, set with carefully placed but still empty dishes and flatware, leans towards the viewer.  One framed picture shows the landscaped outdoors in this very controlled scene. Another seems to be a reproduction of the kitchen itself, or perhaps a mirror, although it would be unlikely to place a mirror above a stove.  The ingenuity of Parkins’ art adds depth to Gilbreth’s story.

In the light of current obsessions with introducing children to STEM subjects at the youngest possible age, it is wonderful to see a sophisticated text and artwork about a pioneer in the technology. Maybe some readers will get the message that the sciences and arts work together, and that the unpredictable elements of people’s characters and individual challenges partly determine if and how they innovate. I look forward to writing about other books in this series from Tundra.



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