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Ernestine Carey, 98; wrote a comical look at her big family in ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’

Times Staff Writer

Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who teamed up with a younger brother to write “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the bestselling book that lightheartedly chronicled their life growing up in a family of 12 children in the early part of the 20th century, has died. She was 98.

Carey, who lived in Reedley, Calif., died of natural causes Saturday at a hospital in Fresno, said her son, Charles Carey Jr.

“Cheaper by the Dozen,” which Carey wrote with her brother Frank Gilbreth Jr., was published in 1948. The fact-based novel about the Gilbreth brood -- six boys and six girls born over 17 years -- was praised for its gentle humor and for being an affectionate tribute to their parents.

The book, which earned the French International Humor Award, has been translated into a dozen languages.

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It also was turned into a 1950 movie starring Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy and Jeanne Crain. In 2003, Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt played the parents in a modernized remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen” that was followed by a 2005 sequel.

Born in New York City on April 5, 1908, Carey was the third child of industrial engineers Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

The Gilbreths were pioneers in the field of “scientific management,” collaborating on the development of motion study as a way to improve how workers perform tasks.

Their management consulting firm’s expertise was used by major industrial plants in the United States, Britain and Germany from 1910 to 1924.

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“Dad always practiced what he preached and it was just about impossible to tell where his scientific management company ended and his family life began,” Carey and her brother wrote in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

The family’s large house in Montclair, N.J., “was a sort of school for scientific management and the elimination of wasted motions -- or ‘motion study,’ as Dad and Mother named it.”

Their efficiency expert father, for example, made movies of his children washing dishes to determine how they could reduce their motions and save time. But that was to be expected from a man who “buttoned his vest from the bottom up, instead of from the top down, because the bottom-to-top precess took him only three seconds, while the top-to-bottom took seven.”

The elder Gilbreths also installed process and work charts in the bathrooms, requiring the children to initial the charts in the morning after brushing their teeth, taking a bath, combing their hair and making their beds.

At night, they recorded their weight and initialed whether they had completed their homework, washed their hands and faces and brushed their teeth.

To save time, the Gilbreth children listened to German- and French-language records while taking baths and brushing their teeth.

“Mother,” Carey and her brother wrote, “wanted to have a place on the charts for saying prayers, but Dad said as far as he was concerned, prayers were voluntary.”

Frank Gilbreth died of a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1924, the day after Carey graduated from high school.

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“Belles on Their Toes,” Carey and her brother’s 1950 sequel to “Cheaper by the Dozen,” dealt with how their widowed mother struggled to raise her family alone and carried on the management-engineering business. The book was made into a 1952 movie starring Crain and Loy. (Lillian Moller Gilbreth died in 1972 at the age of 93.)

Carey received a bachelor’s degree in English from Smith College in 1929. She worked as a buyer for Macy’s department store from 1930 to 1944 and as a buyer for James McCreery and Co. from 1947 to ’49.

In 1930, she married sales executive Charles E. Carey, who died in 1986. They had two children.

Having grown up in a family of 12 children had something to do with her having only two children, her son said Monday.

“She was the third-oldest, and when her dad died they all had tons of kids to care for,” he said. “She loved kids, but she felt two were the right amount. And, of course, she always had a career; I’m sure that entered into it also.”

Carey said that when he and his sister were growing up, his mother set up a chores chart similar to the one her parents had used with her and her 11 siblings.

“It was not as detailed as theirs,” he said, “but it was the same type of thing: activities that had to be done, and you had to sign off on it; and there would be prizes if you learned touch typing or read certain books.”

He also recalled that while he was growing up, his mother always said how proud she was of her children, even “when we never set the world on fire. She was just very positive in everything she did, and I think some of her brothers and sisters called her Pollyanna because she was so positive.”

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He said his mother remained close to her siblings, two of whom survive her. “They were a very close, private family,” he said.

Besides the two books she wrote with her brother, Carey wrote three others on her own that were published in the 1950s, “Jumping Jupiter,” “Rings Around Us” and “Giddy Moment.”

In addition to her son, Carey is survived by her daughter, Lillian Carey Barley; her brothers Frederick and Robert; six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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