The women who worked at A. & L. Tirocchi took on jobs according to their abilities and experience. Those who had been there the longest did the more complicated work, while apprentices took on the simpler tasks. Mary Traverso worked for Anna as an apprentice between 1932 and 1936. Her job included the simple stitching of basting and overcasting seams, stitching that would not have been visible on the finished garment. Emily Valcarenghi, daughter of Anna and Laura’s sister Eugenia, started working in the shop when she was nine or ten and living at 514 Broadway while she attended nearby St. Mary’s school. With another of the younger girls, Emily picked up pins on the workroom floor with a magnet, made deliveries to clients, cleaned, and ran errands.

The more experienced workers actually sewed garments together, did decorative stitching, and prepared and pressed delicate and difficult-to-work-with fabrics such as chiffon or velvet. Mary Traverso remembers that she used to help the more experienced girls with the complicated procedure of steaming velvet.

During the busy fall and spring seasons, the workers put in long hours, especially when there was a rush order. All of their work was done in the workrooms of the shop, however, in contrast to one pervasive practice of Rhode Island industry. Workers who made clothing, textiles, jewelry, and artificial flowers were frequently asked to take unfinished work home, turning their homes into factory adjuncts. The Tirocchis prohibited homework, but did so out of concern for the fine fabrics rather than consideration for the workers. Like many employers at the time, Anna and Laura may have required their employees to work unpaid overtime, or they may have paid overtime off the books, allowed employees compensatory time off, or given them gifts to compensate them for overtime.

Some women came to the shop without a great deal of sewing experience and started at the bottom of the ladder of skill and prestige. Emily Valcarenghi, who herself was to gain skills and become one of the career workers, remembered this hierarchy and how she looked up to the older girls. Much later, when Mary Traverso began her apprenticeship with the Tirocchis in 1934 just as the shop’s fortunes began to decline steeply, the ancient system of apprenticeship had decayed and her apprenticeship was more of a dead-end entry-level position than one that guaranteed her a mastery of the entire range of dressmaking.

In the most basic function of the shop, Madame Tirocchi would drape fabric–usually muslin, which would become the lining of a gown--on a dress form shaped to a customer’s figure. The more experienced workers would pin the fabric, and then the less experienced girls would baste it. The basted garment would be taken off the form and the fabric cut from this model. After a proper fit was assured through fittings with the client, the senior workers would sew the garment and do any special finishing work. Much of the work was handwork, but the shop did have Singer sewing machines and a hemstitching machine.

Anna Tirocchi closely supervised all of this work. As Emily remembers, "She had the whole say." She also told the curators that the workers, who felt close as family, never argued among themselves except to dispute what Anna might have wanted. Once that was determined, there was no further argument.

In addition to helping create original garments, the workers did alteration and repair work on clients’ clothing. They also repaired and cleaned lace, and pressed gowns made from fine fabrics brought in by the clients at the end of a season, or before or after a special occasion or trip. About half of the shop’s business consisted of makeovers, so the workers also worked to re-make dresses according to the wishes of the customer.

Although the ready-made clothing outsold custom-made garments at the Tirocchi establishment from 1924 on, the workforce did not contract sharply. In 1926, the median weekly force was still 14, and it fell only to 12 in 1928. Even the Depression had a delayed effect on the sewing room at 514 Broadway. The workforce remained at around 10 until 1933, and only then did it sharply contract--to a median of five per week after the 1933 summer break, and to three per week in 1937-38. From the mid-20s onward, the workers were doing more alterations, repairs, and special services than making new gowns, but they were steadily occupied in these tasks, which still required skill and experience, especially in working with the fine materials used in all Tirocchi merchandise.

As a woman past eighty years of age, Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli dreamily recalled her days there. "That was a place to work. So beautiful!" Imagine cabinets full of luxurious brocades and velvets and chiffons; drawers full of exquisite laces and fine lingerie; boxes of elegant buttons and beautifully made trims; shelves of chic hats and handbags. Imagine a worker handling such materials as she never hoped to have in her own wardrobe, except for her own wedding gown, and taking pride in creating gowns that Madame Tirocchi herself envisioned.

A. & L. Tirocchi was an extraordinary place for a young woman to work. The career workers were privileged to do a range of work in the dressmaking trade and acquired skills that many of them took with them after they left the shop. All the women, even the more transient workers, no doubt learned more than they could have imagined simply from soaking up the atmosphere of the shop and being under the tutelage of the remarkable Madame Tirocchi.

[ printable version ]

  The Family
  The Business
  The Clients
  The Workers
      Who They Were
      What They Did
      Their Pay




Learn how the Tirocchi researchers used oral history interviews.