After the shop moved from the Butler Exchange to its location at
514 Broadway, A. & L. Tirocchi employed an average of
12 to 16 workers every year. Surviving shop records do not reveal
much information about the workers as individuals, but it is clear
that in general these girls and women fit what was by the 1910s
a dominant pattern for women of the European immigrant families.
They generally left school early to help support their families,
and most of them worked only until they married. A few stayed on
until their first children were born. Many of the women were friends
and neighbors, perhaps even kin, because the Tirocchis relied on
word-of-mouth and personal introductions to find their workers.
Most of the workforce came from the Italian neighborhoods in the
Pocasset section of Providence where the Tirocchi sisters lived
when they first came to town. Interrelated families, mostly from
Southern Italy, lived there, and most of the Tirocchi employees
were second-generation Americans.
Of the 39 names that can be traced through the shop's records,
eight can be placed in a "career" category because they
appeared in the employee books over at least a ten-year span. By
contrast, the remaining workers all appear to have worked for the
Tirocchis for less than three years. The result was a divided work
force with a relatively stable long-term component and a larger,
more transient group of shorter-term employees.
The dressmaking business was definitely seasonal, with demand highest
in the spring and fall. The shop typically closed for six to eight
weeks in the summer and sometimes for a few weeks in February and
March, as well. Some workforce changes were seasonal, as new workers
often appeared in the fall to replace those who seem to have disappeared
during the summer break. But there were constant comings and goings;
the longest period in one time book in which the labor force remained
constant was seven weeks.
Once they were hired, the girls bonded quickly, It was a small
workshop and Anna and Laura created a family atmosphere for them.
They talked as they worked, becoming fast friends and becoming involved
in each others lives. Conversation was easy since much of
the work was done by hand. The workers generally ate lunch together
in the third floor dining room when St. Marys church bell
tolled noon, and sometimes went for walks during their lunch break.
They talked of their own lives and no doubt speculated about the
lives of the women for whom they were creating such splendid garments.
They socialized, became godmothers to each others children,
and later worked together as they sewed in their homes.
Most of the workers were Catholic and many attended the same church,
sharing these other cultural experiences and values. They undoubtedly
took delight in each others romances and marriages. Mary Riccitellis
husband recounted how the girls would flock to the windows and call
his name as he blew his horn on the way to work when he was courting
Mary. Anna and Laura Tirocchi made a gift of a wedding gown made
in the shop to each of their girls who married. All the shops
workers lovingly worked on these gowns, making the dresses a present
from each of them, as well.
The workers even took vacations together. During the summer break,
Anna Tirocchi went to her house in Narragansett and invited the
workers to come for a week - in essence a form of paid vacation.
The girls stayed in an apartment over the garage and cooked their
meals in a log cabin attached to the main house. Beatrice Cella,
Lauras daughter, eagerly anticipated the arrival of the girls
for their week of vacation each year, for "then the fun begins"
she wrote in a letter one summer. Surviving snapshots show spirited
young women in bathing suits thoroughly enjoying themselves during
Emily Valcarenghi noted that relationships among the workers were
so close that even though they were not blood kin, "we were
all related when we lived there." As a niece, she did live
at 514 Broadway, but it must have felt like a second home to the
other girls as well. Mary Traverso, who worked only three years
as an apprentice, maintained close contacts with the more experienced
workers in the shop, socializing and remaining friendly "until
they all died."
Sewing was not just a part of the workers wage-earning lives,
but an important part of their family lives, as well. Mary Riccitelli,
her husband reported, "went on sewing because she loved it;
she loved to create; she loved making things." Mary Traverso
also sewed "tailor-made" clothes for her daughter and
continued to make wedding gowns, having picked up the skill of beading
that she never learned at the Tirocchis shop. Emily Valcarenghi
spoke with pride of the finely finished snowsuits she made for her
daughters. Mary Riccitelli Basilico also continued to make wedding
gowns during the evenings, assisted by Mary Traverso and Grace Venagro,
and her husband would drive the friends home afterward.
Lino Picolo married a tailor in 1929, the same year she worked
for the Tirocchis. In all likelihood, she later worked alongside
her husband in his shop. Anna Del Matto, who never married, later
worked as a seamstress for Topal-Carlson and Jeans Inc. Her
work for these firms would have been altering ready-to-wear garments
rather than making custom clothing, but these were exclusive shops
and she would have been working on quality garments as well as serving
a clientele very like that of the Tirocchis. Mary Traverso, who
went from the Tirocchis to free-lance sewing, subsequently worked
for a downtown dressmaker for about twelve years. Sometime before
1935, Patricia Scalera opened her own custom dress shop on a side
street not far from the Tirocchis. Apparently the Tirocchis did
not regard this move with disfavor because Lauras son reported
that she was "of great assistance" in taking on some of
the Tirocchi clients after the business closed.
The Tirocchi workers led lives typical of their class, time, and
place, which included devotion to family, Church, and friends. The
details of their lives are lost. But the remaining evidence supposes
that all of these women were special individuals to begin with or
they would not have passed muster for employment by Anna Tirocchi.
Their time with her touched their lives and affected their later
choices in ways that can only be imagined.
>> read on about What
The Workers Did In the Shop