By chance, scholars have been able to construct a relatively complete picture of the hours worked and the wages earned by the Tirocchi workers in late 1920 and to compare them to those of a larger group of Rhode Island wage-earning women. One of the most complete Tirocchi employee time books covers the period from April 1919 to January 1921. The Women’s Bureau of the U. S. Labor Department surveyed the wages and hours of Rhode Island women in other branches of manufacturing (chiefly rubber, jewelry, metals, and paper boxes) as well as in stores and laundries during the last three months of 1920.

The women in the Tirocchi shop worked far longer hours than most of the women surveyed, being ten times more likely to work 54 hours a week, then the legal maximum in the state. More than four in ten of the Tirocchi work weeks were that long, probably owing to the rush during the busy fall season.

Workers in the shop drew weekly wages, and the Tirocchi sisters paid close attention to the hours and productivity of their employees, as detailed in the pay books. Although the Tirocchi workers avoided the abysmal pay rates associated with homework–the practice of factory workers taking unfinished work home–their typical earnings were lower than those of the women surveyed by the Women’s Bureau. None of the Tirocchi workers earned $20 or more per week, but nearly a third of the Women’s Bureau workers did. Nearly two-thirds of Tirocchi workers earned less than $12 per week, while only 15% of the Women’s Bureau workers had such lean pay envelopes.

Tirocchi employees more closely matched the Women’s Bureau workers in the middle ranges, with fewer than 40% of the former and over 50% of the latter earning between $12 and $19.99 per week. The Tirocchi median weekly wage of $9 was just over half that of all the Women’s Bureau workers, and only three-quarters that of the lowest-paid group in the survey, the 5-and-10-cent store workers.

Panfilo Basilico, husband of former long-time worker Mary Riccitelli, put this in perspective by telling the curators that as a young man he made $10 a week and added, "Well, in those days, of course, a nickel was a lot of money. You could ride the bus for a nickel. A nickel went a long way. We went dancing. What did we need–twenty-five cents? The subway, I think, was fifteen. You could buy a nice suit for twelve dollars."

Madame Tirocchi did give her workers raises, but they appear to have been negotiated individually rather than offered across the board. Most raises came just after the New Year, or in the weeks following the summer break. In the fall of 1919, for example, four out of nine workers received a raise one week; two, the next week; and one each, in the following weeks. Between April 1919 and October 1920, one worker’s weekly rate increased from $9 to $15; another’s, from $10 to $19; and a third worker’s, from $9.50 to $21.60, all raises far outstripping the inflation of the time. Whether these healthy raises recognized the seamstresses’ skill or resulted from favoritism, work in the Tirocchi workshop could mean substantial gains for a few.

Some women seemed to enter and leave the Tirocchi workforce in pairs or groups. Five women–Laura (definitely not Laura Tirocchi Cella), Veronica, Margaret Volta, Marie, and Margaret C.–all left the Tirocchi employ at the end of the week of January 17, 1920. Laura, Veronica, and Margaret Volta had been sewing for the Tirocchis at least since the book began in the week of April 19, 1919, and had worked steadily until mid-January of 1920. Marie and Margaret C. began working for the Tirocchis at the end of the summer of 1919 and worked steadily until the same time. Were all five laid off in the post-Christmas lull in business? Were they friends who quit in some act of solidarity? Were they on the losing end of a workplace dispute? Or, were their reasons entirely personal and individual?

The only question that can be answered with any certainty is that they probably were not laid off because of lack of work. Their total weekly salary rates added up to $41.50, but within the next three weeks they were replaced by seven new workers whose aggregate wage rates were $66.90. This was clearly not a case of cutting the overall payroll or indeed of hiring cheaper workers, since the average salary of the new hires was $1.25 a week more than that of the former seamstresses. Some, but far from all, of the higher wages can be attributed to the fact that post-World War I inflation had not yet run its course.

The Tirocchis may have been trying to upgrade their workforce. Three of those who departed were paid at middling rates and two at low rates; two of their replacements earned top rates; four, middling rates; and one, low rates. This interpretation is supported by the fact that three of the new employees became "career" workers who each spent well over ten years in the Tirocchi shop.

Skill differences were reflected in widely varying pay scales. The Tirocchi workforce during those last three months of 1920 fell into three categories: six workers at the top of the pay scale earned from 28 to 40 cents an hour; four in the middle range earned about 17 cents an hour; and three at the bottom earned from nine to eleven cents. This stratification of the workforce persisted through the 1920s and well into the 1930s, but the differences between the highest-paid and the lowest-paid workers narrowed sharply. In 1919-1920, the lowest-paid worker earned about 11% of what the highest-paid earned; in 1926, the ratio was 14%; in 1934, 42%; and in 1937-38–the last days of the shop–74%. The narrower spread in wages was probably linked to the decline in custom work with its requirements for much low-skilled work, such as basting.

The obvious economic gap between the workers and the wealthy clientele of the shop could easily have bred resentment on the workers’ part, but this does not seem to have been the case. The oral histories indicate that the workers took enormous pride in their skills, in creating beautiful clothing, and in working in a fine mansion. The skills they learned and the experience they gleaned in the Tirocchi workshop served many of the workers well after they left the shop. The later occupations of 13 Tirocchi workers were found, and of these 11 remained in the needle trades, all in small-shop settings, some of them working for themselves.

[ printable version ]

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




It is very hard to make comparisons involving money in the past and in the present, but you can get a better idea of the cost of goods and services in the early twentieth century on our money page.