Lillian Gilbreth’s Kitchen Practical: How it reinvented the modern kitchen.

Why Your Kitchen Looks the Way It Looks

Why Your Kitchen Looks the Way It Looks

The way things look.
Oct. 25 2012 3:42 AM

The Woman Who Invented the Kitchen

She couldn’t cook.

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To quantify the efficiency of the Kitchen Practical, and a later, similar kitchen designed for the New York Herald Tribune Magazine, Gilbreth used a metric from the motion study of the production line: steps. As described in the 1931 Better Homes Manual,

An unnamed worker attaches lids onto boxfuls of canning jars in a still image taken from the 1920s Frank Gilbreth research film.
A worker attaches lids to canning jars in a still taken from the 1920s Frank Gilbreth research film Ball Brothers Mason Jars Motion Study

Purdue Libraries' Archives and Special Collections.

The test of the efficiency of the new kitchen was made with strawberry shortcake...The cake was first made in a typically haphazard kitchen…Then an exactly similar shortcake was prepared in the Herald Tribune Kitchen, which has the same equipment and utensils as the other kitchen, but has them arranged for efficiency. The results of this test were so startling as to be almost unbelievable. The number of kitchen operations had been cut from 97 to 64. The number of actual steps taken had been reduced from 281 to 45—less than one-sixth!

In our current era of FitBits and FuelBands, saving steps may not sound like an unmixed blessing, but the manual had a clear position on where those steps should be taken.

The [Herald Tribune] Institute is not opposed to walking and exercise for the woman of the family far from it! But we do maintain that she should take that exercise in the open air, rather than in a treadmill round of refrigerator to sink, to stove and back again.

In the 1940s, what Gilbreth called “circular routing” became known as the kitchen “work triangle,” a concept that designers still rely on today. In an efficiently planned kitchen, the perimeter of the triangle formed by stove, sink, and refrigerator should be no greater than 26 feet, with a typical distance of 5.5 feet between appliances. Gilbreth’s rolling cart has largely been eliminated from contemporary kitchen design, likely due to the increase in counter space. Our “continuous kitchen” with sink, stove, and cabinets harnessed into one larger unit by a solid surface—the refrigerator remains an outlier—developed in the late 1930s.

A kitchen design product of Gilbreth's efficiency studies.
A Pardoe kitchen, inspired by Gilbreth's Kitchen Practical design, by the Kitchen Equipment Co.

Photograph by Theodor Horydczak/Library of Congress.

In the teens, the Gilbreths had reorganized workspaces to put tools and project within reach, without stooping, bending or stretching, all of which were fatiguing. The kitchen proved to be no different. The back cover of the Kitchen Practical brochure included a series of questions to allow women to determine the best height for their countertops, how high they should set their cabinets, and other ergonomic measurements. There was no “one best way” but there was a teachable method to making the kitchen fit the woman. The Better Homes Manual:


It is a tragedy and a reproach that for hundreds of years feminine backs have ached so unnecessarily. … As the result of the work of women like Dr. Gilbreth, all up-to-date kitchen equipment will probably in time be made with easily adjustable legs, but until that time comes there are various expedients by which the housewife may meet the difficulty.

Stand in front of your kitchen counter, shoulders relaxed, elbows bent. If you are 5 feet 7 inches tall, your hands should hover just above a work surface set at a standard 36 inches high, ready to chop, slice, or stir. If you are shorter than that (as the majority of American women are), you will have to raise your elbows laterally like wings, to get your whisk into position. If you are taller than that (as the majority of American men are), you will have to lean down in order to apply proper pressure on the knife. In the case of counter height, Lillian Gilbreth did not have her way. Manufacturers found it easier to standardize.

Gilbreth’s final contribution to the kitchen as workspace is the Gilbreth Management Desk, exhibited by IBM at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933. As the Better Homes Manual put it, “It is Dr. Gilbreth's belief that the business of running a house demands a well-planned little ‘office’ just as surely as does any business run by a man.” The desk had drawers for bills paid and unpaid, a shelf for cookbooks and a nook for a telephone. A toolbox was close to hand. And there was a radio. The radio, more than any other element, speaks to Gilbreth’s psychological training. The point of all this efficiency, after all, was to make the work of home-keeping just one part of a woman’s life. The life of the mind, and the outside world, should not be alienated or separated from homemaking. Efficiencies should make time for other pursuits, and technology could allow you to think about other things, even while washing dishes.