Literature: Cheaper by the Dozen

Cheaper By the Dozen (1948), written by Frank Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, is the hysterical tale of the Gilbreth family — Dad, a 'motion study' engineer who always believed in bringing his work ideas home; Mother, a calm psychologist; and their dozen children: Anne, Mary, Ernestine, Martha, Frank, Bill, Lill, Fred, Dan, Jack, Bob, and Jane. The book, set in 1920s New Jersey, details the events which occurred during the childhood of the titular dozen, up until the point that their father passed away.

It was followed up by Belles on Their Toes, which chronicled the adventures of the family as they are raised by widow Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The two books were adapted to film in 1950 and 1952, respectively; an In Name Only film was released in 2003.

Cheaper By the Dozen contains examples of:


  • The Alleged Car: The family Pierce-Arrow, which never starts for anyone but Dad.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: A few episodes address the kids' being embarrassed by having famous parents, especially when they themselves are dragged into Dad's doings, such as the newsreel about burying old-fashioned pencils to make way for mechanical ones, which the children never hear the end of at school. Other times the whole family falls victim to an inaccurate portrayal in the press.
  • Ambiguous Syntax:
    "But if you're going to be a bricklayer's helper," she said, "for mercy sakes be a good bricklayer's helper."
    "I'll do my best to find a good bricklayer to help," Dad grinned.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: The younger Gilbreths, jealous of the way their older sisters' boyfriends were affecting family dynamics, took it upon themselves to make them uncomfortable.
  • Badly Battered Babysitter: Aunt Anne. Mother herself ends up in this state after taking all the children to visit her family in California while Dad is in Washington helping with the war effort. Everyone gets whooping cough on the way home.
    "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing the dear folks. But next time you take the children out West, and I'll go to war."
  • Big Fun: Dad
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dad is gone, but the family is determined to stick together, and they're confident that they'll be able to do it.
  • Clock King/Awesome by Analysis: This is the gist of the field of motion study and is the major driving force of Dad's character. There's a fastest, best, right way to do everything, and when you've found it, the world will be a better place. The mistake would be in thinking that obsessing over efficiency would necessarily mean a joyless existence. See the last lines of the book:
    Someone once asked Dad: "But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?"
    "For work, if you love that best," said Dad. "For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure." He looked over the top of his pince-nez. "For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mainly Dad, but it clearly runs in the family (leading to Snark-to-Snark Combat). Bill and Martha are probably the leading examples among the children. Even Tom the handyman is a Servile Snarker.
  • Death Glare: Dad gives one of these to one of his children who asks if he "got his tonsils out the way the Spartans used to get theirs out."
  • Dinner and a Show: The Gilbreths' oddity continued at dinner with such things as the "of general interest" rule for conversation.
  • Directionless Driver: Dad. Not that he ever admitted it.
  • Disconnected by Death: Dad dies of a heart attack while he's on the phone with Mother.
  • Disgusting Public Toilet: Dad and Mother think all public bathrooms contain horrible diseases, hence their habit of taking the kids to the woods.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Dad tends to drive crazily, much to the dismay of Mother.
    Frankly, Dad didn't drive our car well at all. But he did drive it fast. He terrified all of us, but particularly Mother. She sat next to him on the front seat—with two of the babies on her lap—and alternated between clutching Dad's arm and closing her eyes in supplication. Whenever we rounded a corner, she would try to make a shield out of her body to protect the babies from what she felt sure would be mutilation or death.
  • Education Mama: Dad is obsessed with making everything educational, via methods like having the kids listen to language records in the bath, and there's a whole chapter called "Skipping through School" about his efforts to have them skip as many grades as possible.
  • Elephant in the Room: Mary, the second Gilbreth child, sadly died at the age of five and thus is missing from most of the book; she's only mentioned in the chapter that covers all of the kids' births. (Her death also means that there were never actually twelve children in the household at once.)
  • Eye Scream: Anne comments briefly that in Lady Godiva's time, they'd probably have put peeping toms' eyes out.
  • Fake Nationality: In-Universe. The book claims that "Dad could take one look at a man and know his nationality," and he uses this ability to pass off his kids as the same in order to get discounts.
  • Gender-Blender Name: At one point, Dad thinks his first son is going to be a girl, so he tells the doctor that the new child will be "Lillian".
    "That's nice," said the man sympathetically. "Real nice. Of course, the other boys in his class may tease him about having a girl's name, but..."
  • Good Parents: The Gilbreth parents loved their children very much, and it comes through loud and clear.
  • Happily Married: Frank, Sr., and Lillian clearly had an awesome and very egalitarian marriage.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Dad, frequently. For instance, after filming the aforementioned newsreel, he makes the kids dig up the casket full of pencils, because surely they don't think he'd let them go to waste?
  • "I Can't Look" Gesture: Anne, playing a factory superintendent in one of the skits the Gilbreth children performed (about the family), covers her eyes and says that she "can't watch" the one of the Gilbreth children who is squatting over a buzz saw. "Dad" (Frank) says to leave him alone, as kids have to learn by experience.
  • Lemony Narrator
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: the Gilbreths did have 12 children.
  • Mistaken for Gay: When one of the boys is accidentally left behind in a restaurant:
    A pretty young lady, looking for business, was drinking a highball in the second booth. Dad peered in, flustered.
    "Hello, Pops," she said. "Don't be bashful. Are you looking for a naughty little girl?"
    Dad was caught off guard.
    "Goodness, no," he stammered, with all of his ordinary poise shattered. "I'm looking for a naughty little boy."
    "Whoops, dearie," she said. "Pardon me."
  • Moment Killer: the Gilbreth girls had plenty of trouble with their younger siblings and their father being this once they started dating.
  • Mother Nature, Father Science: Mother the psychologist and father the efficiency expert. Both apply their respective fields in raising a huge family, and both know that their attitudes complement each other.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter
  • Old-Timey Bathing Suit: Mother wears a bathing suit that's considered old-fashioned even for the time.
  • Order Versus Chaos
  • Overprotective Dad
  • The Peeping Tom: the Gilbreth children deal with one of these by threatening to set his tree on fire.
  • Precision F-Strike: Dad's struggles with swearing are a running theme. Officially, he stopped swearing when he got married, but there seem to have been many exceptions.
    "Jesus Christ," he screamed, as if he had been saving this oath since his wedding day for just such an occasion.
  • The Roaring Twenties: Towards the end of the book.
  • Self-Made Man: When Dad is courting Mother and first meets her parents, they're having a fireplace put in, and Dad announces in the bricklayer's hearing that he thinks laying brick must be an easy job. The incensed bricklayer invites him to try it, and he gets to show off his skill. Later, when Mother explains to the children that this was Dad's way of demonstrating that he was a Self-Made Man, he gets indignant:
    "Trying to tell them nothing," Dad shouted. "Anybody who knows anything about New England knows that the Bunkers and the Gilbreths, or Galbraiths, descend through Governor Bradford right to the Mayflower. I wasn't trying to tell them anything."
    "What did you lay the brick for then?" we insisted.
    "When some people walk into a parlor," Dad said, "they like to sit down at the piano and impress people by playing Bach. When I walk into a parlor, I like to lay brick, that's all."
  • Shared Family Quirks
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Mother. She is almost-perpetually calm and polite, yet when she talks, everybody listens.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Whenever Dad tries to teach Mother how to swim, she sinks.
  • The Talk: at one point, a very reluctant Mother attempts to have this with her children, but she succeeds in getting across more apiology than human biology.
  • Title Drop: In one of early chapters, Dad's habitual response to the question of how he feeds the children: "Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know."
  • The Tonsillitis Episode: at one point, several of the older Gilbreths got their tonsils out, all at once.
  • Tough Love
  • Twerp Sweating
  • Who Would Want to Watch Us?: The kids put on skits about the family for their parents, which use many of the tropes, character points and Running Gags we-the-reader have become familiar with through the book.
    "Do my Mongolians come cheaper by the dozen?"
  • Word Association Test: The children are given one of these by a psychologist who is obviously looking to write about how messed up they are as a result of growing up in their unusual household. They cheat by reading the questions ahead of time and preparing unpleasant, even psychotic-sounding answers, until Lill gives them away by accidentally saying "droppings" before the psychologist says "bird."
  • Work Hard, Play Hard