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Literature / Cheaper by the Dozen

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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.
  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: During one occasion when the Gilbreths had a guest over for dinner, said guest told a sad story, which turned out to be about himself. (The children suspected it but didn't say so.) Lillian, in tears over her failure to see to a guest's happiness, hugged him, hence becoming his favorite of the children from then on.
  • Angry Chef: Chew Wong, the chef employed by Mother's family, is very temperamental, keeping almost everyone out of his kitchen and responding to criticism with a Foreign-Language Tirade. He decides he likes Billy Gilbreth, however, and the family elects to let Billy back in the kitchen when his removal causes Chew Wong to brood, which affects his cooking. He seemingly keeps his position by making very tasty meals.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: The younger Gilbreths tend to work as a unit to torment their elder siblings. Jealous of the way their older sisters' boyfriends were affecting family dynamics, the six little kids take 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."
  • Being Watched: One of Ernestine's "sheiks", nicknamed Motorcycle Mac, drives around the neighborhood multiple times a night in hopes of catching a glimpse of her. One night, it occurs to Ernestine that she hasn't heard the motorcycle in a while. Looking out the window, she sees Motorcycle Mac up a tree in the yard. She angrily tells Anne, saying how lucky it was that her intuition warned her before she started to undress.
  • Big Fun: Dad weighs a good deal over two hundred pounds and is quite jovial, with a mischievous sense of humor.
  • 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.
  • Camera Obscurer: Dad wants the removal of his children's and his own tonsils filmed. Since he wants to show the children how easy it is (and, he says, to keep an eye on the cameraman), he stays conscious during the procedure, and suffers great pain because of this. The pain turned out to be all for naught when the cameraman reveals he accidentally left the lens cap on.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Mary (only a footnote in the sequel reveals that she was dead, although it's all too easy for the reader to guess).
  • 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."
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: Referred to in the chapter about what it was like when a baby was born into the Gilbreth household.
    So when Anne was born, in New York, Dad was not the least bit disappointed, because he'd known all along she would be a girl. It is doubtful if any father was ever more insane about an offspring. It was just as well that Anne was a girl. If she had been a boy, Dad might have toppled completely off the deep end, and run amok with a kris in his teeth.
  • 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 glares fiercely at one of his children who asks if he "got his tonsils out the way the Spartans used to get theirs out."
  • Delivery Stork: This gets mentioned when Mother has to have "the talk" with the children. She tells them to start out with that babies aren't brought by storks, and is surprised to learn they already know that.
  • Dinner and a Show: The Gilbreths' oddity continued at dinner with such things as the "of general interest" rule for conversation.
  • Directionless Driver: Dad frequently got lost while driving, that he ever admitted it. In fact, he frequently blamed the person trying to give him directions for getting him lost.
  • 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 far too fast for Mother's comfort. He also doesn't necessarily see the other vehicles with which he's sharing the roadway.
    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.
  • Due to the Dead: In accordance with Dad's last wishes, "Mortuary Myrt", a family friend, arranges for his brain to be studied at Harvard, and Mother scatters his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • 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.)
  • Everyone Knows Morse: The father decides his children should learn Morse code and paints messages in it on the walls. Most of them translate to Incredibly Lame Puns (one of which, "Two maggots were fighting in dead Ernest," his wife makes him paint out because it's not appropriate for the dining room, in code or otherwise). One of the kids remarks on how they won't be satisfied now until they've figured them all out, even though they know the most they're going to get out of it is bad jokes.
  • 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.
  • Faux Horrific: The thought of Anne wanting silk stockings instead of standard nylons horrifies her parents. they ask what is the matter with standard nylon.
  • Forgot to Mind Their Head: Dad has recently pulled a practical joke on his children, telling them to look in the engine for a bird and then honking the horn loudly. One day when Dad is having to fix the car after a family picnic, one of the younger children sneaks into the car and presses the horn, causing him to hit his head on the hood and burn his wrist on the exhaust pipe.
  • 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..."
  • Gone Horribly Right: Frank Gilbreth Sr. prides himself in having his family operate much like their own company, holding meetings about matters, bidding on bigger chores, etc. This backfires when his children conspire and all vote in favor of getting a dog, which of course has them outvote him twelve to one. He panics when this happens, as he realizes that they could conceivably vote in favor of all sorts of frivolous things. Fortunately, they stop with the dog.
  • Good Parents: While unconventional and often infuriating, the Gilbreth parents recognize the importance of making time to spend with each child individually and to treat them each as unique, important, and valued.
  • Go to the Euphemism: Dad and Mother consider public restrooms so diseased that they take the children into the woods to relieve themselves instead. To maintain delicacy, they come up with two euphemisms for it: "visiting Mrs. Murphy" (which is the name of the chapter) and "examining the rear tire."
  • Happily Married: Frank, Sr., and Lillian clearly had an awesome and very egalitarian marriage.
  • High Heel Hurt: Mother Gilbreth protests her daughters' decision to wear high heels in high school using the family obsession with efficiency. She tells her oldest, Anne, that it's absurd for her and her sisters to go around in obviously tiring shoes while their father lectures around the United States on removing wasted effort.
  • Huge Girl, Tiny Guy: Anne's first boyfriend, Joe Scales, wasn't even as tall as her shoulder. When he sees the teen for the first time, Dad changes his mind about chaperoning their first date on the grounds that Anne could knock Joe out if he started getting fresh. Later, when Joe proposes and says that Anne "caught" him hook, line, and sinker, Dad yells that she should throw him back because he's too small.
  • 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.
  • Language Fluency Denial: The narrator notes that Chew Wong's English fluency abruptly deteriorated when someone tried to criticize him or order him around, when he would launch into a Foreign-Language Tirade and stalk off.
  • Lemony Narrator: The narrator(s) refer to themselves in first-person plural as they describe their childhood adventures, leaving it ambiguous which Gilbreth child is telling the story. It's made even more ambiguous given that the narrator is given to no-holds-barred, democratic snark and self-referential drollery toward every member of the family.
  • 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 disrupting dates 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. It's reflected in the dedication: "To our Father, who only raised 12 children, and our Mother, who raised 12 only children."
  • Murder by Cremation: Subverted. The girls threaten a peeping tom with being burned in the tree he climbed, but they explain to Mother that they were simply trying to "scare the hell out of" him.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: The authors will sometimes edit out some of the nastier language.
  • Nautical Knockout: Dad buys a catboat called the Rena. During one sailing excursion, the boom swings across the deck and hits Dad in the head, knocking him overboard. He stays underwater for almost a minute, but when he comes up, he's bleeding from his nose and dazed, but otherwise fine.
  • Old-Timey Bathing Suit: Mother wears a bathing suit that's considered old-fashioned even for the time.
  • Order Versus Chaos: When you have twelve kids to feed, bathe, dress, and educate, there has to be some kind of order imposed. Fortunate, both parents are scientific experts in efficiency, and they impose the same standards on their household as they do in factories.
  • 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.
    • This theme was understandably removed from the film adaptation due to the Hays Code, but he still calls someone a jackass in reference to a comparison that had been made to Noah's Ark.
  • Prepare to Die: When a suitor of Ernestine's climbs a tree to see her undress, the other kids corner him up the tree with a torch. Anne tells him to say his prayers if he knows any.
  • Road-Sign Reversal: One of the reasons Dad gives for never listening to signs when he drives is that somebody has probably messed with them. The narrator suggests he was remembering pranks that were pulled when he was young.
  • Rewind Gag: One of the family's mealtimes is shown in fast-forward on a newsreel at the local theatre. Dad comments that it could have been worse; at least it didn't rewind it so it looked as though they vomited their food onto their plates.
  • The Roaring '20s: 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: Dad's a famous practical joker and punster. Dad comes to regret it when the kids get old enough to turn the tables on him, times twelve.
  • Shrinking Violet: One of Ernestine's admirers is too shy to tell her his feelings in person, so he sends her a photo of himself with a sweet message. The younger children embarrass him by doing a "three-part harmony" of the message while he and Ernestine are in the room.
  • Sick Episode: In one chapter, all the kids except for Martha come down with measles.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Mother. She is almost-perpetually calm and polite, yet when she talks, everybody listens.
  • Skip the Anesthetic: Dad decides to have his tonsils removed with only a local anesthetic note ... and regrets it.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Whenever Dad tries to teach Mother how to swim, she sinks.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Dad hires a cameraman to film all of his kids and himself getting their tonsils removed. When the cameraman hesitated, Dad threatened to rip out his tonsils personally. After the operations are done, the cameraman writes a letter saying he left the lens cap on the camera (in the film adaptation, there was instead no film in the camera), and he quits. Dad, post-surgery, rips up the letter.
  • The Talk: At one point, the children think a new baby has arrived after Mother goes to bed early with a cold. Dad rushes out, leaving a very reluctant Mother to explain to the children how babies arrive. However, she succeeds in getting across more apiology than human biology, and the children are simply left confused.
  • 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. However, the doctor mislabels one of the tonsil X-rays, and so one of the girls who thought she didn't have to get hers out is dragged to the doctor. In a separate, but closely related incident, Dad decides to get his taken out and have it filmed. The operation goes off smoothly, but the cameraman made a mistake and none of it recorded.
  • Tough Love: Due to the sheer number of children, the Gilbreth parents have to draw some firm lines to keep the household from collapsing in chaos, such as strict bedtimes, multiple headcounts, and regular fire drills to make sure the kids can escape in an emergency. They're also intent on seeing their children succeed, which means the home is run like an educational laboratory, with even the youngest children expected to learn astronomy, foreign languages, and maths. It's hardly abusive, but it's severely regimented.
    • The Gilbreths also believe (to a lesser degree) in Corporal Punishment. Mother, the psychologist, is very reluctant on the subject and gives so many restrictions on spankings ("Not on the base of the spine!") that Dad eventually gives up and resorts to other means to control his brood.
  • Twerp Sweating: Potential suitors find themselves grilled by the entire Gilbreth family on their fitness as boyfriend material. Dad's intimidating enough, but the younger siblings are actively trying to make them slip up
  • Unusual Euphemism: Dad preferred "by jingo" and "holy Moses", while Mother would say "mercy Maud" on occasions that called for swearing.
  • 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: Dad's job takes him away from the family for weeks at a time as he goes on lecture tours and demonstrates his efficiency techniques for factories—this in the 1920s, where travelling cross-country is a lengthy endeavor, with no regular phone calls or facetime. When he gets home, he organizes grand and glorious vacations for the entire family, and spends a lot of time physically romping with the kids.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: It seems that Martha is the only one who doesn't need her tonsils removed, and she goes to have a luxurious solo vacation with a Cool Aunt that spoils her rotten. The doctor then reveals that it was Ernestine who didn't need her tonsils removed, and Martha has to go in for surgery after eating sweets for a few days. She understandably protests, saying that it wasn't fair, but the doctor with No Sympathy says that he's going to pretend her tonsils belong to Ernestine. The kids are sympathetic because Martha didn't ask for this and she had the hardest time with recovery, particularly since she underwent anesthetic on a bellyful of doughnuts.