Lillian Gilbreth: Your kitchen would look very different without her

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Did you know that the foot-pedal trashcan was invented by Lillian Gilbreth, who was arguably the mother of industrial/organizational psychology?

Linda Woolf (Webster University) and I are starting a campaign to rename the foot-pedal trashcan. Let’s call it the “Gilbreth.”

Gilbreth and her husband Frank were known for their time and motion studies. In the early 1900s, companies hired them to analyze jobs—to find ways to help their employees be more efficient in their work.

When Frank died in 1924, the companies stopped hiring Lillian. Apparently, they thought, a woman could not possibly know anything about business. Long story short, Gilbreth must have thought something like this: Ok, you think women belong in the home? Fine.

In her book The Home-Maker and Her Job, (freely available on Google Books), Gilbreth wrote that the “[w]aste of energy is the cause of drudgery in work of any kind. In industry the engineer and the psychologist, working together, have devised means of getting more done with less effort and fatigue and of making everything that is done more interesting” (Gilbreth, 1927, p. vii.).

Gilbreth redirected her efficiency expertise into making improvements in the home with her greatest impact in the kitchen. While today the foot-pedal trashcan is sometimes marketed as good for hygiene, Gilbreth invented it in the name of efficiency. If you’re holding trash with two hands, you have to set it down to remove the trashcan lid. That takes time. Instead, why not use a foot to open the lid? That’s much faster.

We can also credit the shelves in our refrigerator doors to Gilbreth. Imagine that we didn’t have those door shelves. Everything would be stacked on the main shelves. We’d be constantly taking stuff out to get to the stuff at the back. With the door shelves, we have much more of our refrigerated items at our fingertips. She also gave us the egg keeper, which readers of a certain age will remember. If you were collecting eggs from your own hens, having a dedicated refrigerator door shelf with indentations made specifically to hold eggs was handy. How about a dedication door space for butter? Yes, Gilbreth gave us the butter tray, too (Giges, 2012).

Gilbreth redesigned the layout of our kitchens to be more efficient. Before Gilbreth, a kitchen was “a large room with discrete pieces of furniture around the edges. These might include a table, a freestanding cupboard or Hoosier cabinet, an icebox, a sink with a drying board and a stove. Ingredients, utensils and cookware might be across the room, or even in a separate pantry” (Lange, 2012). Your kitchen may sound very similar to what Gilbreth created. She “put stove and counter side-by-side, with food storage above, pan storage below, and the refrigerator a step away. A rolling cart provided additional surface area, and could be wheeled to the sink with a load of dirty dishes, where soap, sponge and drying rack were all within reach. The idea was to create a tight circuit for the cook, with no need to move the feet. The L-shaped arrangement she devised continues to be one of the most popular options for contemporary kitchens” (Lange, 2012).

Gilbreth didn’t just think this design was more efficient. She tested it to see if it actually was. If you’d like to give your student some research design practice, invite your students to consider how such a study could be conducted.

Gilbreth had a baker make a strawberry shortcake first in the traditional kitchen and again in the redesigned kitchen. The utensils and the equipment in the two kitchens were identical. The only difference was their placement. There were two dependent measures: 1) the number of operations, such as opening a drawer or closing the oven door, and 2) the number of steps—literally, the number of footfalls. The traditional kitchen required 97 operations, the Gilbreth kitchen only 64. The traditional kitchen required 281 footfalls, the Gilbreth kitchen a mere 45 (Lange, 2012).

This redesign is now known as the kitchen triangle formed by the stove, sink, and refrigerator at the corners. Ideally, the perimeter of this triangle measuring no more than 26 feet. I just measured our kitchen. From center of stove to center of refrigerator is six feet, center of refrigerator to center of sink is seven feet, and center of sink to center of stove is eight feet. That’s a total of 21 feet.

“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… The desk had drawers for bills paid and unpaid, a shelf for cookbooks and a nook for a telephone”(Lange, 2012). Finally, I know who to blame for this weird, almost unusable space in our house. When bills came in the mail, when we had telephones that plugged into the wall, and before the advent of home offices and laptop computers, this space made sense. Now, not so much.

These are only some of the contributions Gilbreth made to our home lives. Encourage your students to read more about her.



Giges, N. (2012). Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Gilbreth, L. M. (1927). The home-maker and her job. D. Appleton and Company.

Lange, A. (2012, October 25). The woman who invented the kitchen. Slate.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.