The Gilbreth Family

When you tour the Steam Plant, two names that pop up almost immediately are Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. You might already know them as the adult stars of the semi-autobiographical novels Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles On Their Toes, written by their children Frank and Ernestine.

Frank and Lillian at work (self-portrait)

Frank and Lillian were efficiency experts and industrial management pioneers, meaning they studied ways to build structures more quickly, safely, and durably. Together they identified eighteen actions – called “therbligs” (“Gilbreth” spelled backwards) – that could be combined to complete virtually any specific task with maximum efficiency. Their twelve children were often used as initial test subjects, and as the kids grew older they were even financially rewarded for incorporating these skills into their everyday chores. As Ernest wrote:

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes, so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. Irregular jobs, such as painting the back porch or removing a stump from the front lawn, were awarded on a low-bid basis. Each child who wanted extra pocket money submitted a sealed bid saying what he would do the job for. The lowest bidder got the contract.

The children were encouraged – some of them might say pressured – into 24/7 efficiency. They even listened to French language records while brushing their teeth!

Lilian with some of her children. (source: Gilbreth Archive, Purdue University)

Frank and Lillian were a particularly cool twentieth century couple because they both went to college (Lillian earned her doctorate too), and once they started a family they shared work both inside and outside the home. In the Gilbreth household, it wasn’t uncommon for Frank to stay home with the kids while Lillian travelled for a lecture.

When the Steam Plant commissioned the Gilbreths to help build the plant, they were already married and had just started their family. (Their second-oldest, Mary, died at a young age, making the phrase “cheaper by the dozen” particularly poignant.) At first, Frank planned to build the plant out of brick, as that was his initial claim to fame, but after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed multiple steel-enforced brick buildings, they switched their plan to reinforced concrete. And now, over one hundred years later, the Plant stands.

A Visit to MOHAI

Hello, and welcome back to Steam Plant Graphic Novel HQ! This week’s snack of choice is dill pickle almonds and black coffee. That stuff really keeps you awake.

One of the places we visited for research is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), founded in 1952 and now located in Lake Union Park next to the Center for Wooden Boats. I remember visiting the museum when I was a kid and it was located in McCurdy Park. My friends and I liked watching the footage of the Ivars Dancing Clams because they were weird and irreverent, and we didn’t know those words yet. Today the museum displays treasures like replicas of the Post-Intelligencer globe (they own the original too, but right now it’s too heavy to be housed in the building), Lincoln Towing’s hot pink toe truck, and a musical history lesson about the Seattle Fire, staring a glue pot and plastic fire.

What I remember most about MOHAI, in the 1990s and now, is how directly it addresses both the racism, sexism, and classism in America’s roots and the incredible industrial advances we’ve made. Instead of abstracting or minimizing either topic, MOHAI uses each to illuminate the other. What kinds of jobs did Seattle’s Chinese population have at the end of the 20th century? Were there Black Riveters? What stories did the Duwamish tell their children? Even when an exhibit wasn’t directly chronologically related to the story David and I are telling, it’s all connected because it’s all Seattle.

Here are some images from our latest visit:

In 1907, Jim Casey and Claude Ryan (not pictured) got a $100 loan and started UPS in a Pioneer Square basement.


Here, a team of independently-owned steamrollers pave a neighborhood street in 1906.


When people started harassing Chinese-owned businesses after the Seattle Fire, this is what Mayor Henry Yesler had to say. We at Steam Plant HQ do not condone dynamite as a problem-solver, but we definitely support Mayor Yesler’s fierce refusal of racism.


The very first Nordstrom, founded by Carl Wallin, a shoemaker, and John Nordstrom, a Swedish man who came to Ellis Island as a sixteen-year-old with five dollars and no English. A few years after that, John and Carl met in Alaska, where they took gold to open the store at Fourth and Pike.

MOHAI is open seven days a week from 10a-5p.

A Visit to the Steam Plant!

In November, David and Mairead spent a day at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, meeting everyone and going over plans and contracts. We even ate lunch in an underground cafeteria!

After that, we toured the plant with wizards Michael Aronowitz, Rebecca Osso, Maija McKnight, and Laurie Geissinger. Here are some pictures from the day.


These pictures are outside of the Plant – it’s a historic concrete building, so when they were checking the structure for safety a person tapped a hammer, very carefully, all along the outside. If the noise changed it meant the concrete was weak there. That’s why there are mysterious black circles on the outside of the Plant!

This is one of the places where workers hung tools. The shapes were traced into the wall so folks knew once everything was put away. This reminded us of both art school classrooms and prison kitchens.

Do you remember the part in Ramona Quimby where her class is reading Mike Mulligan and she asks her teacher how Mike went to the bathroom when he was digging holes all day? Good news: the plant has a staff bathroom complete with sinks and lockers.

This is the second floor supervisor’s office. We resisted the urge to pick up the phone and ask the ghosts if their refrigerator was running.

This is the sign that now greets folks at the door! Shout-out left-handers. David Bowie was a left-hander.

(The Plant features free, open-to-the-public tours on the second Saturday of every month. You should go! The hours and information are here.)

There is still a stretcher, all ready, in case someone gets hurt. There was not a hospital very close by, when the plant was starting, but there was a brewery.

A green NO. What does it mean?!!

Hi! From L-R: Maija, David, Mairead, and Laurie. (Congratulations on your retirement from City Light, Laurie!)

The Georgetown Steam Plant shimmers – it really does! – with gorgeous handmade details, and pearly gray light on green paint, and concrete metal echo. Special thanks to Michael and Rebecca, and Laurie, for teaching us.