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 Womens 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 homeworkthe practice
of factory workers taking unfinished work hometheir typical
earnings were lower than those of the women surveyed by the Womens
Bureau. None of the Tirocchi workers earned $20 or more per week,
but nearly a third of the Womens Bureau workers did. Nearly
two-thirds of Tirocchi workers earned less than $12 per week, while
only 15% of the Womens Bureau workers had such lean pay envelopes.
Tirocchi employees more closely matched the Womens 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 Womens Bureau workers, and only three-quarters that
of the lowest-paid group in the survey, the 5-and-10-cent store
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
needtwenty-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 workers weekly rate increased from $9 to $15; anothers,
from $10 to $19; and a third workers, 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 womenLaura (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 1937-38the
last days of the shop74%. 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.
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