Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2012

Cheaper By The Dozen

By Timothy Harrison

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Anyone who knows me knows I love old movies. In fact, from what I hear from our readers, I think there are a lot of people who love lighthouses and lighthouse history who also love old movies, especially those which are family oriented and based on real life events.

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Thirteen members of the Gilbreth family posed for ...

One of my many favorites is Cheaper by the Dozen that was released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1950 and starred Hollywood legends Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. The movie is based on the book by the same title that was co-authored by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey that recounts the real life story of time and motion study and efficiency experts Frank Gilbreth Sr., his wife Lillian, and their children. The movie is from an era of good quality family films which are quite the contrast to most of what Hollywood releases today.

The movie Cheaper by the Dozen was followed in 1952 by the sequel movie, Belles on Their Toes, which was also based on a book and outlines the family’s life and adventures after Frank Sr.’s death in 1924.

As with most good vintage movies, Hollywood decided to do a remake of Cheaper by the Dozen in 2003 starring Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin and then do a sequel called Cheaper by the Dozen 2 in 2005. However, the remakes, although quite enjoyable, do not follow the original story, and from a true historical perspective I would not recommend them. The original 1950 movie Cheaper by the Dozen and the 1952 sequel Belles on Their Toes are available on DVD and well worth purchasing or renting.

Sadly, most of the younger generation has no knowledge of the role that Maine native Frank Gilbreth, Sr. (1868-1924), and his wife Lillian, played in the development of many things that are now used in the modern workplace, especially in the military, and the methods that are still used in the operating rooms at hospitals today around the world.

By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with lighthouses. The answer is simple: at one time, Frank Gilbreth Sr. and his wife Lillian owned two very unusual lighthouses on Nantucket Island, which is about thirty miles off the coast off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In 1991 Frank Gilbreth, Jr. (1911-2001) recounted his family’s involvement with the lighthouses in a story he wrote for Historic Nantucket, a publication of the Nantucket Historical Society. The article, titled “The Gilbreth “Bug Lights,”’ about the Cliff Lights of Nantucket, not only provided an amazing glimpse into the history of the lighthouses that many people had otherwise thought were silos, but his story saved the history of these unique lighthouses for future generations, something that otherwise might have been lost.

Gilbreth wrote, “I first saw our towers as a ten-year old boy in 1921, when my father bought a small lot containing a lighthouse keeper’s tool house and the smaller Bug-Light. The deed, in my mother’s name and dated July 15, 1921, says the property was acquired from the estate of Ellenwood B. Coleman for $1,840. The deed also says that Ellenwood B. Coleman obtained the property ‘from the United States’ on July 31, 1912. So it is plain that the bug lights hadn’t been used for at least nine years.

“The surroundings in 1921 were bleak sand dunes and sharp, pointed beach grass, murderous to a boy’s city-tender bare feet. Since there were very few shrubs and no large sand dunes to block the view, we could see the water on a vista about 180 degrees. The beaches and dunes have built up through the years.”

In referring to Peleg Easton, the first lighthouse keeper of the Nantucket Cliff Range Lights, Gilbreth wrote, “I imagine that back in Peleg’s day the towers were almost on the water, and this is borne out by Argument Settlers, which says they were built ‘on Cliff Beach.’’’ However, what Gilbreth didn’t realize at that time was that the original towers, also very different looking than a traditional lighthouse, were torn down at some point and rebuilt with the new silo appearance towers that his family had purchased.

Gilbreth continues, “In 1921, when my father bought our small lot, the larger of the bug-lights was almost due south of the smaller. Their purpose, of course, was directional. When a navigator saw one above the other, he had a reliable guide in entering Nantucket channel. There is today on Brant Point a pair of such range finders – only, alas, they resemble something ticky-tacky built with a child’s erector set.

“When we moved in for our first summer, there was (and still is) a small one-room brick building painted white with a dark gray slate roof, situated halfway between the towers. There’s a similar oil house adjacent to many lighthouses, including the one at Brant Point that (horrors) now has a roof of mahogany-colored composition shingles. Neither the little slate-roofed building nor the larger tower was on our newly acquired property.

“The only residence near our place was to the northwest, across what eventually became known as Pawguvet Lane. It was a two-story wooden structure that had been built for the lighthouse keeper, but was then owned by Philip R. Whitney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and his wife Helen, both talented artists.

“At the time we moved into the enlarged tool house, our dad also acquired the taller tower. I’m not sure whether the acquisition was part of the original transaction in the form of lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans, or whether he paid a little something extra. It’s not in the deed.

“In any event, an unforgettable sight for your chronicler, then a deliriously excited freckle-face tyke of ten, was that of a group of Nantucket men, with a horse and a ships capstan, moving the larger lighthouse to its current location close aboard and just abaft our present cottage, The Shoe, built in 1952. We took the name of our house from the original tool house cottage that it replaced. Dad names the original place The Shoe to tease Mother, whom he compared to the old lady with more than enough children who resided in one. The horse that provided the muscle to move the taller tower was blindfolded so that it wouldn’t get dizzy as he walked around the capstan. The tower, jacked up and placed on rounded logs, was pulled at the rate of about thirty feet an hour. This was a ticklish job, fraught with considerable danger to all hands and the horse and was performed bravely and successfully.

‘My parents, as you may recall if you read the books or saw the movies Cheaper by the Dozen or Belles on Their Toes, were pioneers in motion study and scientific management. They introduced into the scientific vocabulary, the words ‘micromotion’ and ‘cyclegraph.’

“Two cartoon figures of the day were called Mike and Ike (“They Look Alike.)” So, my father, who dearly loved to name things, called the smaller tower, “Mic” and the larger “Cyc.” They are so designated now, with signs over their doors. (Subsequently, the brick oil house, which did not belong to us but nevertheless stored our bicycles, became, of course, “Bike.”)

“The Shoe was so small that we used the bug-lights as dormitories. What a thrill to have one’s own lighthouse! The winds sometimes howled farsightedly at night as they swirled around the rounded structure. And one summer a red-winged blackbird started singing every dawn from a vent at the top of Cyc, and the acoustics, in the hollow cone, sounded like a pipe organ in full spate. When the summer of 1921 was over and we told our classmates in Montclair, New Jersey, about sleeping in our own lighthouse, they didn’t believe us.

“Today the lighthouses are in impeccable condition, although admittedly Cyc is not in situ, as preservationists like to put it. We have lovingly preserved them, but I can’t overstress how well the structures were built and how amazingly sound they are today. In the seventy years we’ve had them, not a singe shingle has needed to be replaced on the sides of the structure.

“Admittedly, bug-lights don’t have quite the slim silhouette or the romantic connotations of full fledged lighthouses. And, to our amusements, some ‘trippers’ have actually inquired as to whether Mic and Cyc are silos! Little do they know, or can they envisage, the hundreds and hundreds of ships pilots who, for almost three-quarters of a century, welcomed with a prayer of thanksgiving the sight of the two range lights, one above the other, giving them directions to steer safely and into our harbor.

“But if the bug-lights look a little stumpy from outside, the insides are a delight that few visitors or Nantucketers of this generation have seen. A really stunning, hand-sawn (of course) circular staircase replete with winding handrails, is a genuine work of art; it goes from the first floor all the way to the top of each structure. Some silo! What would we build today in similar structures, steel ladders? At the top floor of each structure there is a built-in cabinet with a brass plate for a lantern, next to the window.

“Cyc, the bigger, is about thirty-five feet tall. Despite my advanced years, I climbed to the top of the tower and measured it. Where was Rapunzel when I needed her!

“The stairs don’t creak, the original plaster is still intact, and structurally the lighthouses are just as they where when Peleg Easton first climbed the stairs (with whale oil I assume) carrying a lighted torch (another assumption.)

“I’ve added a vestibule to Cyc like the one that used to be at the old Great Point Lighthouse. It contains a tiny kitchen and a bathroom with shower. The downstairs of the lighthouse itself is big enough for a sofa bed, small dinning room table, bureau, and chairs. There’s another bed on the second floor, where the light used to be; there are spectacular views, a desk where I sometimes work, and a large space to hang suits and dresses. All in all, it’s a nifty private guest lighthouse, where aging but still numerous Gilbreth siblings from ‘off’ are always – well usually – welcome.”

Now that you’ve read this far, you might wonder where the title, Cheaper by the Dozen comes from. The story goes something like this. It was from one of Frank Gilbreth Sr.’s favorite recollections. Apparently, one day while stopped at a red light, a pedestrian asked, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Gilbreth, pretending to carefully ponder the question for a moment, and then just as the light turned green, replied, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know,” and then drove off.

Amazingly, this is now all part of America’s amazing, interesting, and always unique lighthouse history.

Editor’s Note: If you want to learn more about the Gilbreth’s, as well as the books, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, I would also recommend the following books, which, for the most part, can still be found in used books stores, on Ebay, Amazon and through libraries.

Living With Our Children by Lillian M. Gilbreth

A Homemaker and Her Job by Lillian M. Gilbreth

Ancestors of the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth Jr.

Quest for One Best Way by Lillian Gilbreth

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Partners for Life by Edna Yost

Managing on Her Own by Dr. Laurel Graham

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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