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Frank and Lillian Gilbreth papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 7

Scope and Contents

The Gilbreth Papers documents the professional and personal lives of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. The collection consists of personal papers, letters, correspondence, photographs, and other memorabilia that Lillian Gilbreth collected during her life regarding her youth, marriage, family, and career. Types of materials in the collection include: personal correspondence between Frank and Lillian Gilbreth regarding their courtship, marriage, family, and work; correspondence between the Gilbreths and family members, family photographs of the Gilbreths, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s work diaries and scrapbooks, business correspondence, newspaper and magazine clippings, manuscripts, books, speeches, notes, articles, motion pictures, work-related photographs, slides, audio recordings, flow charts, awards, citations, certificates, diplomas, honorary diplomas, artifacts from their motion study research, and printed ephemera from engineering conferences and meetings. Subjects include time study, motion study, fatigue in the workplace, psychology, photography, ergonomics, management, construction, and creating work environments geared toward the handicapped.


  • 1869 - 2000
  • Majority of material found within 1949 - 1968
  • Other: Date acquired: 11/30/1971


Access Information

The majority of collection is open for research. The Gilbreth Family Restricted materials have been restricted due to donor request; prior consent from the Gilbreth family is required before viewing.

Copyright and Use Information

Copyright and literary rights are held by the Gilbreth family.

Biographical Information

Frank Bunker Gilbreth was born July 7, 1868 to John and Martha (Bunker) Gilbreth of Fairfield, Maine. The youngest of three children, Frank enjoyed a quiet childhood until his father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1871. For financial reasons, his mother was forced to move Frank and his sisters, Anne and Mary, to Boston where Martha opened a boardinghouse. Martha successfully managed the boarding house and along with a small income from her sister Caroline’s artwork, was able to support the family and put her two daughters through college. After passing the MIT entrance exams in the summer of 1885, Frank decided to forgo higher education and entered the construction trade as a bricklayer’s assistant. Frank noted that the bricklayers with whom he trained all had different approaches to bricklaying and he soon devised a method which eliminated unnecessary motions and greatly increased productivity. Frank quickly worked his way up within the company and was soon able to support his mother and aunt. In 1895, he started his own contracting firm, Frank Gilbreth and Company. The company became famous for finishing projects early and under budget. In 1902, Frank’s firm finished building a laboratory for MIT in eleven weeks, a feat which so impressed a young engineering student that he begged the president of the university to arrange a meeting. The student was Andrey Potter (who later became the dean of engineering at Purdue University) and he and Frank Gilbreth became lifelong friends.

Lillian Evelyn Moller was born May 24, 1878 in Oakland, California to William Moller, a successful plumbing business owner, and Annie Delger Moller. The oldest surviving daughter of nine children, Lillian became adept at aiding her often ailing mother in the management of a large well-to-do household. A shy child, Lillian was home-schooled by her mother until she was nine. Once in school, Lillian excelled at her studies and ended up graduating high school with straight As. In 1896, she entered the University of California and became the first woman in the university’s history to deliver a commencement address when she graduated in 1900. The following fall, Lillian moved to New York to start her graduate work at Columbia University. An illness forced her to return to California but in 1901 she returned to the University of California and earned a master’s degree in literature. In the spring of 1903, Lillian, along with a group of friends, set out for the East Coast to begin a six month tour of Europe. They arrived in Boston and had a few days to sightsee before boarding their ship. One of her friends, Minnie Bunker, introduced Lillian to her cousin, Frank Bunker Gilbreth. Frank, a confirmed bachelor, became infatuated with Lillian and was waiting at the dock when her ship returned. Six months after their first meeting he proposed and on October 19, 1904 Frank and Lillian were married in the living room of her parents’ home in Oakland, California.

The marriage of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth began one of the most famous partnerships in engineering history. Lillian immediately became a full partner in Frank’s business, working with him first from home but soon joining him on job sites, at business meetings, and participating in industrial conferences. Frank relied on Lillian tremendously and affectionately referred to her as “Boss.” They collaborated on papers, 9 speeches, lectures, and co-authored four books. In 1907, Frank met Frederick Winslow Taylor, the developer of time study, and became a disciple of the Taylor System. The Gilbreths became deeply involved in scientific management research and Frank was instrumental in the creation of the Taylor Society. In 1912, the Gilbreths left construction and focused their attention on scientific management consulting. They broke with Taylor in 1914 and formed their own form of scientific management which focused on the human element as well as the technical. In 1915, Lillian received her doctorate in psychology and incorporated her training into the family business. She saw the need to improve worker satisfaction which would in turn improve overall job performance and worker efficiency. Frank designed his systems to ease worker fatigue and increase productivity by studying each movement a worker made in a process he called micromotion study. The Gilbreths used still photographs and film strips to study worker movement in order to devise the “One Best Way” to perform a task. The Gilbreths also saw the need to improve the physical comfort of the worker and their innovations in office furniture design were ahead of their time and led the way to the study of ergonomics.

The Gilbreths’ work in time management and efficiency carried over into their personal lives. Early on, Frank and Lillian agreed to have twelve children, six boys and six girls, a feat which they accomplished in seventeen years. The children Anne, Mary (died at the age of six from diphtheria), Ernestine, Martha, Frank Jr., Bill, Lillian, Fred, Dan, John, Bob, and Jane soon became willing participants in their parents’ studies. The older children were assigned younger siblings to care for and all had daily housekeeping tasks, including the toddlers, who were given table legs to dust. Often Frank would recruit the children for help with his research including his motion studies on typing and surgery. The Gilbreths’ success raising a large family in which both parents worked full time was a testimony to their achievements in management and efficiency and their love for one another. After Frank’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1924, Lillian not only carried on with their work but also managed to put every child through college. Lillian retired in 1968 and died January 2, 1972


83.50 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged into fourteen series:
  1. Diaries and Scrapbooks, ca. 1895-1967
  2. Correspondence, ca. 1906-1970
  3. Clippings, ca. 1913-1996
  4. Publications, ca. 1904-1967
  5. Conferences, ca. 1924-1972
  6. Research Materials, ca. 1873-1968
  7. Audio Visual, ca. 1915-1979
  8. Flow Carts, ca. 1908-1938
  9. Awards and Artifacts, ca. 1917-1984
  10. Printed Materials, ca. 1876-1988
  11. Family and Personal Life, ca. 1864-1972
  12. Photographs, ca. 1864-2000
  13. Oversized Materials, ca. 1920-1978
  14. James S. Perkins, ca. 1940-1995

Physical Access Information

Portions of the collection contain materials which have limited access due to their fragile condition; restrictions will be lifted as these materials are restored.

Technical Access Information

The majority of films, audiocassettes, audio reels, and audio records must be migrated to a digital format before use. A selection of these materials have already been digitized and are noted in the finding aid. Please contact the Archives and Special Collections if you'd like to access these materials.

Custodial History

The Gilbreth Papers were donated to Purdue University by the Gilbreth family following the death of Lillian M. Gilbreth in 1972. Additional materials have been added by the family over the years. James S. Perkins donated his collection of Gilbreth compilation films and motion study materials he compiled with Lillian Gilbreth. These materials were added as a separate series to the collection in 1994.

Acquisition Information

Donated by the Gilbreth family; the bulk of the collection was donated in 1972. James S. Perkins donated his papers and films to the University in 1994. These materials were incorporated into the Gilbreth Papers due to the significance of Perkin’s work in collaboration with Lillian Gilbreth in the restoration and preservation of the original Gilbreth films. In 2007, Charles Carey donated approximately 500 photographs from the estate of his mother, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

Existence and Location of Copies

Digital reproductions of materials are available for research use. See our digital collections database e-Archives: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth papers

Processing Information

The collection was arranged by library staff in collaboration with Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. A large portion of materials were originally classified as restricted by the Gilbreth family and stored separately from the collection. In 2006, the restrictions were lifted and the materials were incorporated into the collection. A small portion of materials have been kept on restricted access by library staff at the request of the Gilbreth family. All materials have been housed in acid-free, lignin-free folders and boxes. All newsprint has been photocopied. Oversized printed materials and photographs have been grouped into individual series for preservation purposes. Motion pictures and audio materials have been placed in archival containers and stored separately for preservation purposes. Motion pictures are being restored and converted to VHS and DVD formats as funding becomes available. Additional Gilbreth materials collected by the libraries were separated into an addendum to the collection. Additions have been incorporated into the collection. Five additional films were digitized in 2023 by George Blood.
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth papers
Joanne Mendes, Archives Assistant
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Third edition. First edition completed June 4, 2008.

Revision Statements

  • 2021-04-09: Added biographical note and transferred information from pdf finding aid. KW
  • 2022-06-08: Corrected typo in file title; May to Mayo. KW
  • 2023-11-02: Included technical access note and edited finding aid to indicate additional films digitized.

Repository Details

Part of the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Repository

504 Mitch Daniels Boulevard
West Lafayette Indiana 47907 United States