Cheaper by the Dozen and the Girl Scouts

Cheaper by the Dozen and the Girl Scouts

Disney studios released a new version of the movie Cheaper by the Dozen on March 18, 2022. Who knew that the story has an impressive Girl Scout connection?

The original movie, released in 1950, tells the story of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their 12 children. It was based on a book written by two of their children, Ernestine and Frank Jr.

Frank Gilbreth came from a blue-collar background and built a thriving construction business. Lillian was one of nine children herself and earned BA and MA degrees in literature from the University of California. She met Frank while pursuing her PhD and became fascinated with the time-saving techniques that he had developed to make his construction crews more efficient.

TheGilbrethsCom Family in Foolish Carriage
The Gilbreth Family in their “Foolish Carriage,” via thegilbreths.com
Cover of first edition of Cheaper by the Dozen
First edition, published in 1948

She also became fascinated with Frank. Despite a 10-year age difference, the couple married in 1904. Lillian became a partner in Frank’s engineering firm and switched her studies to psychology at Brown University.

Their partnership combined psychology and business management to develop the new field of time-and-motion studies. Along the way, they had 12 children and she earned a doctoral degree in psychology.

Group portrait of the Gilbreth family, the real-life family in Cheaper by the Dozen
The Gilbreth family in 1924, shortly before Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr’s death, with all eleven children who survived to adulthood. Standing are Fred, Dan and Jack. Seated are Frank Jr, Martha, Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Frank Sr, Ernestine and Anne. On laps are Jane and Bob. Seated in front are Bill and Lillian Jr. (Original image from Purdue University archives via http://www.thegilbreths.com)

With busy careers and a large household to manage, the Gilbreths applied their time-saving techniques to their family. According to daughter Ernestine, “They believed that what would work In the home would work In the factory, and what would work in the factory would work in the home.”

Like most of Dad’s and Mother’s ideas, the Family Council was basically sound and, although it verged sometimes on the hysterical, brought results. Family purchasing committees, duly elected, bought the food, clothes, furniture, and athletic equipment. A utilities commit­tee levied one-cent fines on wastes of water and electricity. A projects com­mittee saw that work was completed as scheduled. Allowances were de­cided by the Council, which also meted out rewards and punishments. Despite Dad’s forebodings, there were no pon­ies or roadsters.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

Widowed at age 46, Lillian popularized her managerial psychology as a highly-sought-after lecturer.

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, who twice served as GSUSA national president, asked Dr. Gilbreth in 1930 to be an unpaid consultant to the Girl Scouts. Lillian was reluctant, but few people could resist Mrs. Hoover.

I went over to national head­quarters and found that they felt perhaps the Personnel Department was just the one that would be of most in­terest to me and one that needed my help. That was where I began to work. I went into the Personnel Department as a member of the Personnel Committee and found the committee and Agnes Leahy, the director, so congenial to work with that I was very happy. I needn’t tell you that once a Girl Scout. you’re always a Girl Scout. I remember going to meetings even before I made my Promise.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

Lillian Gilbreth in her Girl Scout uniform
Lillian Gilbreth in her Girl Scout uniform

Dr. Gilbreth set high standards for various Girl Scout role, both professional and volunteer. Former GSUSA President Marjorie Culmer (1956-1963) recalled:

Dr. Gilbreth felt very strongly that the only difference between volunteers and staff was that the staff got paid for their work. She drew no distinc­tion between the calibre of per­formance expected from volunteers and staff; she believed that the volunteers should get the same satisfaction from their work.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

She also believed that professional staff and the national board should forge a strong partnership to achieve common goals.

Lillian soon dedicated herself to Girl Scouts, serving in a range of volunteer positions:

  • Per­sonnel Committee
  • Interna­tional Committee
  • Finance Committee
  • Con­stitution Revision Committee
  • Committee on National Personnel
  • National Board of Directors
  • Exec­utive Committee
  • Program Com­mittee
  • National Advisory Council

Gilbreth also deployed her well-earned respect and credibility when the Girl Scouts were (erroneously) accused of promoting communism in 1954.

According to daughter Ernestine,

She loved everything about this organization and all of its associates and opportunities for fur­ther new experience with young peo­ple. This tie-in became one of the key joys of her life. On her professional trips, she gave repeated lectures to Girl Scout groups and vice versa.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

So grab a bucket of popcorn–even better, a box of Girl Scout cookies–and enjoy the latest version of Cheaper by the Dozen. Wouldn’t it be a great STEM tie-in for your troop?

For more on Lillian Gilbreth see:

©2022 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian