From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The pedal bin was broadcast on the 16th July 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Nearly a hundred years ago it wasn’t an induction cook-top that made your kitchen look bang up to date but a pedal bin. Invented by Lillian Gilbreth in the 1920s, it was the result of a new and very twentieth century preoccupation – the study of time and motion. A pedal bin could save precious minutes in the kitchen. It was emblematic of the emerging interest in efficiency in the early twentieth century, a time when architects wanted houses to work like machines and Henry Ford introduced the production line to the factory floor.
Like fellow American, Frederick Taylor, whose investigations into workplace efficiency is known as Taylorism, the husband and wife team of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth focussed on simplifying systems in all areas of life. Frank was an industrial engineer and Lillian had trained as a psychologist – her doctorate thesis of 1915 examined ways to eliminate waste in teaching. Together they added a human element to Taylor’s clinical focus, examining the actions involved in any task, not just the time it took to complete. They had an understanding that simple things such as better lighting, frequent breaks and a properly designed work area could reduce worker fatigue, introducing concepts that we now call ergonomics. It was all about the worker, and Lillian encouraged the idea that the additional money generated by greater efficiency in the workplace should be shared between those who did the work.
The Gilbreth couple also tested their theories on their own family of eleven children (a twelfth had died of diphtheria at the age of five). They established new ways of making homework more efficient and tried to speed up the learning of foreign languages by playing language recordings while the children were brushing their teeth. This somewhat eccentric domestic life was later written about by two of their children and made into a popular film of the 1950s, ‘Cheaper by the dozen’, named after Frank’s usual response when asked why he had so many children.
When Frank died in 1924, Lillian was dropped by their previous collaborators so she turned to the domestic sphere, the so-called woman’s world, most notably the kitchen. Talking to a meeting of businesswomen in 1930, she told them how she and her husband had ‘considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labor in the home.’ Now she wondered how the chore of cooking could be improved (and it was a chore – her children wrote that their mother could bake a fine cake but not much else). Lillian came up with the kitchen triangle, aimed at reducing movement between the key elements of oven, sink and refrigerator, and still used today in kitchen design. She highlighted ergonomic considerations such as workbench height and good lighting and came up with entirely new ideas such as adding shelves to the fridge door for butter, milk and eggs. And of course, there was the pedal bin. She showed her ideal kitchen at the Women’s Exposition of 1929 in New York and while it may look dated today, the key elements within it are still very relevant.
Lillian Gilbreth’s expertise was sought by many companies and government agencies, and in 1965, at the age of eighty-nine she was the first woman to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. The humble pedal bin is really not so humble after all. It remains not just a symbol of lateral thinking and simple hygiene but an accolade to an extraordinary woman we should celebrate each time we put a foot to its pedal.
A wonderful read Colin. What an inspiring woman.
She was truly remarkable – I barely scraped the surface of her many achievements and innovations.