Clients and Craftswomen: The Pursuit of Elegance
Susan Porter Benson
Two very different groups of women frequented the A. & L. Tirocchi dressmaking shop at 514 Broadway: the mostly Italian working-class immigrants and immigrant daughters who did the sewing and the wealthy Yankee women of the Providence elite who bought and wore the products of their hands. From one point of view, a vast gulf measured by differences in economic position, nativity, residence, religion, and language yawned between them. At the same time, they shared a small patch of common ground in a world increasingly given over to the impersonal transactions of mass production and mass consumption. Tirocchi seamstresses and clients alike had deep roots in a more old-fashioned world, one in which custom production and reuse of material goods testified to a more individualized and frugal sensibility. That world was certainly not egalitarian, but it was one in which a humble apprentice earning three dollars a week and the wife of a powerful industrialist shared certain values. Each could find satisfaction in fine workmanship and in the thrifty remodeling of an old but still serviceable garment.
The Tirocchi shop flourished during a transitional period in the manufacture and consumption of women's clothing. If the sisters had been plying their trade a century earlier in Providence, their business would have been typical of makers and purveyors of women's clothing. In early nineteenth-century America, women generally acquired their apparel in one of three ways: they made it themselves; they bought it second-hand; or they had it custom-made by seamstresses like Anna and Laura Tirocchi. Most well-to-do women relied primarily on custom dressmaking. During the first half of the nineteenth century, ready-made women's clothing was limited to cloaks and corsets, items that could be made in relatively standard ways. Underwear had joined this array by the 1870s.(1) Ready-made dresses, suits, skirts, and waists (blouses) were widely available by the turn of the century, but most were too crude and unfashionable for the tastes of the Tirocchi clientele. By the eve of World War I, however, manufacturers were offering women a combination of fashion and quality in off-the-rack garments. Ironically, it was just at this point in the development of the larger dressmaking world that the Tirocchi sisters established their business. They were clearly going against the tide of change, as the market for custom-made clothes was declining in importance. It is a testimony to the sewing skills, artistic sense, and business acumen of the sisters, especially Anna, that the enterprise flourished in an increasingly hostile economic context.
A new awareness of fashion, emerging in the 1920s, fueled the expansion of the ready-made women's clothing industry and had a mixed effect on custom dressmaking. Elite Americans had long been aware of the trends emanating from Paris and other fashion centers, but after World War I, haute couture received extensive coverage in the mass media as well as in high-end publications like Vogue. Custom dressmakers stood ready to provide wealthy women with wardrobes that would distinguish them from the legions who bought ever more fashionable clothes off the rack. At the same time, though, retail advertising and the fashion press urged upper-class ladies to change their costumes more often and to build larger and more varied wardrobes of garments suitable for every conceivable occasion. The higher price of custom-made apparel forced even wealthy women to choose between distinctive smaller wardrobes of custom-made frocks and larger wardrobes that mixed ready-made with custom-tailored garments.
Changes in retailing as well as manufacturing and fashion were also undercutting the position of the custom dressmaker. Department stores [fig. 36] and small specialty shops catered to the wealthy by offering high-quality and high-fashion clothing in lavish settings that echoed the homes and clubs to which these women were accustomed. Department stores such as the Shepard Company and the Outlet Company in downtown Providence produced the illusion of democracy by opening their stores to shoppers who were "just looking," by charging fixed prices rather than bargaining with customers, and by offering a broad range of clothing and household goods in price-segregated departments. In fact, however, all shoppers were emphatically not seen as equal by the merchants who ran these enormous stores. They sought most eagerly the same customers who frequented the Tirocchi establishment: those with substantial disposable income that allowed them to purchase more lavish wardrobes than the working-class majority, who could only afford an occasional extravagance. For their wealthiest customers, department stores reserved luxurious accommodations on the premises and offered a wide range of special services. Small department stores - for example, Gladding's in downtown Providence - and specialty shops offering similar high-end merchandise competed for elite customers' dollars. More frankly exclusive than large department stores, these businesses also used lavish décor and personal service to attract wealthy clients who would return again and again. Although both types of stores primarily sold ready-made clothing, they offered alteration services and some custom tailoring to meet the demands of well-to-do clients.(2)
Shops such as A. & L. Tirocchi faced stiff competition. The new ways of making and selling apparel offered an approximation of the exclusivity, fashion, and precise fit that had long been the dressmaker's stock-in-trade. To a large extent, Anna and Laura fought fire with fire, albeit with their own special flair. The Tirocchi sisters moved from a downtown office building to a substantial mansion on fashionable Broadway and fitted it out as luxuriously as their most pretentious competitors. Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., son of Laura Tirocchi, remembered that the first-floor parlor, which customers passed on their way to the showroom in the second-floor billiard room, featured an elaborate round three-person Victorian seat centered under an imposing chandelier. In the billiard room, customers could choose their fabrics from artfully draped arrays. Although the Broadway mansion housed both manufacturing and sales, the spaces devoted to making the garments were hidden away on the third floor. Stuart Blumin pointed to this separation between the venues of consumption and production as a mark of developing middle-class life in the nineteenth century, an economic and social experience limited to a minority of the population until World War II.(3) As shopping became more of a mass experience conducted in a very public setting, the Tirocchis offered personal attention and privacy. Tirocchi service was extremely individualized. Each garment could be made from a customer's fabric of choice and tailored to her figure and specifications. Although a customer might be just as warmly received and well known at an exclusive ready-to-wear shop, it was only at 514 Broadway that her exact dimensions were embodied in two sets of measurements on a dress form, one for her torso and another for her arm. A woman went to the Tirocchis not to be dazzled by the huge array of goods and spectacular, brightly-lit displays that characterized the downtown shopping district, nor to rendezvous with friends as they might at the Shepard Company's tearoom. The wealthy client sought out the Tirocchis for an experience of quiet elegance, heavily insulated from the public world of commerce.
Anna and Laura Tirocchi took a second leaf from the ready-made retailers' book in the mid-1920s, when they began to stock some ready-made items and to order high-end ready-made dresses for their customers, so that entire ensembles from underwear to hats and purses could be purchased at their shop. It is a maxim of retailing that the more one can sell to each customer, the higher the profits. The Tirocchi sisters offered their customers fine underwear imported from Italy and France, accessories, and table and bed linens. As seamstress and Tirocchi niece Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli put it: "Well, they used to sell everything and anything. When a customer wanted it, she had it." Another technique for competing with larger retailers was the use of "robes": pieces of beaded and/or embroidered cloth bearing the general outline of a gown, ready to be cut and fashioned into custom-tailored dresses. The Tirocchis ordered their "robes" from New York manufacturers/importers. Because much of the handwork had been done outside the shop, dresses made from "robes" were less expensive than comparable garments made entirely on the shop's premises. An extensive stock of "robes" was found in the Tirocchi workshop when its contents were inventoried in 1990-92 by RISD curators. These embellished dress pieces were especially well suited to the unconstructed chemise style of dress that became popular during the 1920s. The establishment also offered specialty services such as washing and restoring fine lace.(4)
The Tirocchi shop flourished despite its competitors. Anna, especially, was a canny businesswoman, but more crucial to the shop's appeal was the sisters' artistic and technical skill. They designed and supervised the construction of clothing that pleased and flattered their customers, and they were craftswomen of the first rank, probably the equal of any plying their trade in Europe or America. Ruth Trowbridge Smith remembered that when she wore her Tirocchi-made going-away suit on her honeymoon in Paris, people "thought it was the snappiest - where was it made they wanted to know."(5) Both the dressmakers and their customers valued this type of work, but they also rejected planned obsolescence, which became increasingly pervasive in the United States as the twentieth century progressed. They saw custom-made garments as long-term investments rather than throwaways. The fine apparel constructed by the Tirocchis was repeatedly retailored to fit changing fashions, social needs, and body shapes. Many wealthy clients shared the old-fashioned, thrifty mentality of Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, who asked rhetorically, "Why throw anything away?" Mrs. Richard LeBaron Bowen typified this attitude when she purchased four new custom-tailored outfits in a single year, but also had four older ones made over.
Other aspects of their lives also predisposed Anna's clients to patronize the Tirocchi shop. As a group, their activities included a variety of social events, each occasion requiring its appropriate dress [fig. 37]. They demanded clothing that was not just suitable, but also attractive, fashionable, and new. Very few such customers held paying jobs, devoting themselves instead to the unpaid work that was a mark of their social class: home management, entertaining, and activity in clubs and social-service organizations. Among the shop's few wage-earning clients were Alice P. Brownell, an assistant court clerk, and sisters Anna and Mary Daley, who were nurses. It is not at all surprising that Brownell appears in the Tirocchi record books only for $15 worth of alterations in 1921, but it is notable that the Daley sisters together spent nearly $400 in the early 1920s for three custom-made garments and one "make-over." These expenditures probably made them the best-dressed nurses in the city, but perhaps they were not typical nurses. In 1919, Mary (and most likely her sister as well) traveled to Europe, and by 1923, she was writing to Anna Tirocchi from fashionable Brookline, Massachusetts, where she lived with her manufacturer husband.(6)
The overwhelming majority of Tirocchi clients spent money that they had inherited or their husbands had earned. The spouses of Providence customers were prominent lawyers (Harvey A. Baker); physicians (Martin S. Budlong); bankers (Michael F. Dooley); brokers (Frank D. Lisle, Pardon Miller); insurance executives (Harold J. Gross, William E. Maynard, James F. Phetteplace); and executives in the state's industrial concerns: textiles (Richard LeBaron Bowen, Arthur D. Champlin, Henry A. DuVillard, E. Fielding Jones, David S. Seaman, Edward R. Trowbridge), jewelry (William P. Chapin, Jr; Ashbel T. Wall, Sr.), precision tools (Paul Churchill DeWolf), and office equipment (Thomas Arnold Briggs and Frank D. Simmons). Some were involved in the expansion of the thriving city. Benjamin Harris was a construction engineer, Stephen Harris a real estate agent, and William M. Harris a prominent lumber dealer. Byron S. Watson was a supplier of wholesale boots and shoes. Others were engaged in less obviously remunerative but genteel occupations, such as Howard Chapin, librarian of the Rhode Island Historical Society, or sculptor E. Edwin Codman. Many husbands had broad interests bridging the manufacturing and financial sectors, such as Samuel Mowry Nicholson, who was president of American Screw Company and Nicholson File Company and chaired the Board of Directors of the Industrial Trust Company; and Frederick Stanhope Peck, who was involved in textile manufacture, coal and oil supply, and stock and bond dealing, as well as Republican party politics. Mrs. Walter (Ivy) Callender, married to the president of a major downtown Providence clothing store (Callender, McAuslan and Troup), spent nearly $1500 with the Tirocchis in 1930, instead of wearing the ready-mades available in her husband's store.
One of the puzzles of this project has been to discover why certain members of the Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut and Fall River elites came to the Tirocchi shop. Clients shared a variety of characteristics in addition to their wealth. They belonged to many of the same organizations and many lived in some proximity to one another. Of one hundred Providence clients whose addresses were found for the period 1916 to 1920, ninety lived on Providence's East Side, mostly on streets where large single-family houses of a certain grandeur set the standard [see fig. 3, p. 13; figs. 8-9, p. 19]. Of those ninety, moreover, sixty-four lived in the sector bounded by Olney Street, Hope Street, Stimson Avenue, Governor Street, Williams Street, and Benefit Street in the East Side's stately, aristocratic core, built primarily in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some clients were very close neighbors: Ivy Callender and Ella Jones lived next door to each other at 196 and 198 Hope Street; Florence Elgar and Elizabeth Smith resided across the street from each other at 169 and 170 Brown Street. At least five Tirocchi clients each were to be found on Brown, Lloyd, Bowen, Waterman, and George Streets, and six lived at the Minden, a residential hotel at 123 Waterman Street [fig. 38]. All but one of the remaining twenty-six East Side clients lived east of Hope Street and north of Waterman Street, an area with somewhat newer but still substantial homes built in the early twentieth century. This group of clients was more widely dispersed than those in the core East Side area. Of the ten Providence clients who did not live on the East Side, nine resided on the West Side, within a radius of about a mile and a half of the Tirocchi shop. The surviving client record books show no clear change over time in the residential patterns of the clientele [see p. 74].
The Tirocchis' Providence customers were further linked by their shared leisure and civic activities. Out of a sample of eighty-five women (roughly one fourth of the clients), fifty were listed in the 1932 edition of The Blue Book for Providence and Nearby Cities, in effect a social register for the city. The Blue Book asked those named therein to report club membership. The Women's Republican Club of Rhode Island received more mentions (thirty) than any other single organization named by either clients or their husbands. It is not surprising that these women and their families would cast their lot with the Republican Party, which dominated state politics until the Great Depression and, with some Democratic defectors, kept a brake on regulatory and protective legislation in the state. It is notable, however, that the Women's Republican Club attracted even more members than exclusive social organizations such as the Agawam Hunt Club [fig. 39], in which twenty-seven women reported membership. In general, though, the Tirocchi clients and their husbands reported the largest number of memberships (125) in elite social clubs that included the Agawam Hunt, the Rhode Island Country Club, and the East Side Skating Club. Organizations devoted to intellectual and artistic pursuits, still within an exclusive social context, were the second most popular category. Clients and their husbands reported 101 memberships in such groups as the Rhode Island Historical Society, the Providence Athenaeum [figs. 40-41], the Providence Art Club [figs. 42-43], and the Handicraft Club. Exclusive men's clubs, such as the Turk's Head Club, the Hope Club [fig. 44], and the Squantum Association [fig. 45], counted fifty-nine customers' husbands among their members. Thirty-two belonged to organizations for those of early American lineage, among them the National Society of Colonial Dames and the Society of Colonial Wars.(7)
As a group, the Tirocchi customers and their husbands were focused on the local rather than the national scene. Only three customers reported membership in national organizations or organizations outside Rhode Island, all of which were either affiliated with the Republican Party or were similar to the in-state clubs to which they belonged. Clients' husbands also were locally focused. A handful belonged to national groups celebrating family lineage or to clubs in other states similar to the yacht clubs and city clubs that they frequented in Rhode Island.
The most glaring omission in the list of Providence customers' club memberships is the absence of women's reform organizations devoted to "social housekeeping" in the early twentieth century. Even the relatively staid but still feminist American Association of University Women, although it did attract other women listed in The Blue Book, did not number a single Tirocchi client in its ranks. The Blue Book did not list memberships in organizations more active in social reform, but a search of such organizations' records reveals that Tirocchi customers took part only in the most conservative and timid of them. Twenty-nine of the women in the sample of eighty-five were affiliated in some way with the Irrepressible Society. Founded in 1863, the Irrepressible Society brought women together to sew first for Union soldiers, then later for former slaves; but after the Civil War its attention shifted to "the general charitable work of the city." The Irrepressible members distributed coal and food to the city's poor, as well as garments they either sewed themselves or paid poor women to sew [fig. 46]. As charity work became more professionalized and rationalized, the Irrepressibles gradually de-emphasized volunteer participation, turned much of the casework over to professionals, and focused more narrowly on aiding the disabled rather than the larger universe of the poor. By the 1920s, its focus was almost exclusively on running a store to sell poor women's sewing products. Most of the Tirocchi clients were minimally involved with the Irrepressible Society as subscribers, a status which required only a dollar's annual contribution. By 1926, the organization had been absorbed into the Junior League, and Junior League programs for the late 1920s indicate that Tirocchi customers sewed clothing for sale in the Junior League shop.(8)
Eight customers in the sample were affiliated with the Women's City Missionary Society (founded in 1867), which continued the tradition of friendly visits to the poor in their homes into the 1930s, long after it had become an obsolete tactic in the fight against poverty. Two clients were prominent in the Ladies' Aid Association of the Homeopathic Hospital of Rhode Island: Mary Burlingame Peck, one of the Tirocchis' most faithful customers, and Mary Colt Gross, who wore Tirocchi clothes throughout the 1920s and 30s [figs. 47-48]. In short, Providence customers tended to engage social problems through long-standing organizations rooted in a tradition that was linked to small-scale, meliorist relief of individuals' poverty or to conventional charity work, rather than to the building of a regulatory welfare state that would undertake systemic reform.(9)
Despite the fact that Tirocchi customers tended to live in the same neighborhood and to belong to the same conservative social and charitable organizations, the fact remains that most members of those clubs and most residents of those neighborhoods did not frequent the Tirocchi shop. All of the factors that led women to patronize the Tirocchis will never be known, but kinship and close friendship certainly played a powerful role. In the firm's address books, especially those for the 1930s, many entries include such notations as "Mrs. Brayton's friend," "Peck's sister-in-law," "Mrs. Horton's daughter," and "Mrs. Booth her mother." Presumably, many customers and the connections among them were so well known to the Tirocchi sisters that such notations were unnecessary, and the recorded connections were but a small fraction of the total number of family relationships. This interpretation is supported by the fact that these notations most often referred to out-of-town clients, identifying those whose ties might not have been so well known as those of local customers.
A close look at the largest cluster of out-of-town clients - those from Fall River, Massachusetts (about seventeen miles to the east of Providence) - reinforces the importance of kin ties among the Tirocchi clientele. Twelve Fall River women bought clothing from the Tirocchis. Of these, nine were close kin: two mother-daughter pairs, a mother and her two daughters, and a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Clearly, clothes shopping was an activity with intergenerational appeal. Of the three women not linked by kinship, one lived across the street from the mother in one of the mother-daughter pairs. Once again, however, kin connections were part of a larger web of class-based links. If anything, these women were part of an even tighter economic elite than their Providence counterparts. Seven of eleven husbands whose occupations were found held powerful positions in the city's textile industry; one of the seven also led two of Fall River's largest banks. The other four husbands were a physician, a leading coal dealer, a newspaper publisher, and a retired admiral. What remains murky, however tightly linked the Fall River women may have been, is what brought them first to the Tirocchi shop. One connection may have been Adelaide Danforth of Providence, who began to frequent the shop in 1916 and who was an aunt of Dorothy Newton and a friend of Charlotte Robinson, two of the Fall River clients.(10)
Seven of the Fall River women's civic activities have left traces in the historical record. All of these belonged to the Women's Union, six were members of the Fall River Women's Club, and two were members of the Junior League. The Women's Union served the city's wage-earning women in a manner similar to a big-city YWCA, operating a residence, a store at which women's products were sold, and a center for social and educational activities. Three Tirocchi customers sat on the boards of local institutions - two served the hospital, one the children's home. The Fall River women were more engaged with the city's civic and welfare activities than their Providence counterparts, perhaps because Fall River was a smaller, single-industry city, while Providence was more populous and economically diversified.(11)
The possibility that customers in smaller towns were more involved in social-welfare activities is further supported by the long and distinguished career of Mira Hoffman of Barrington, Rhode Island [fig. 49]. In some respects, she fit the profile of the typical customer, residing with her husband William H. Hoffman on fashionable Rumstick Point in Barrington and belonging to such organizations as the Women's Republican Club, the Agawam Hunt Club, the Rhode Island Country Club, and the Society of Colonial Dames. She was far more active, however, both nationally and locally than most of those who wore Tirocchi clothes. A founder of Girl Scouting in Rhode Island, she was the state Commissioner of Girl Scouts from 1923 to 1926 and the national president of the Girl Scouts from 1926 to 1928 [fig. 50]. On the state level, she sat on the Rhode Island Board of Education from 1921 to 1932 and worked with the Rhode Island Infantile Paralysis Association. At the same time, this energetic woman was deeply involved in Barrington "social housekeeping." She founded the Maple Avenue Community House Association, a kind of settlement house for Italian immigrants, as well as the Barrington District Nurses' Association. She was also a trustee of the St. Andrew's Industrial School for Boys.(12)
Another way to examine the composition of the Tirocchi clientele is to ask who was not represented among the customers. Although Anna and Laura Tirocchi were themselves Italian immigrants and lived near other Italian immigrants, Italian names appear only once in the client books. In 1927, the Tirocchi sisters made a wedding gown and dress for Rochele Vervena's marriage to Ferdinando Tortolani. Her mother [fig. 70, p. 89] and father lived on Cushing Street, and the newlyweds took up residence on South Angell Street - both fashionable East Side streets where the Tirocchi clientele were clustered. Mariano Vervena, the Italian vice-consul in Providence, shared class and cultural connections (he was president of the Columbus Exchange Trust Company and a member of the Providence Art Club, among others) with other Tirocchi customers' husbands and was almost certainly perceived as socially distinct from the Italian immigrants who populated the West Side of the city, a predominantly working-class group engaged in unskilled labor, factory work, or skilled crafts such as stonecutting, barbering, or baking.(13)
That few Providence Italians wore Tirocchi clothing was neither an accident nor a function of poverty. Many wealthy Italians, such as the members of the Aurora Club, could easily have afforded the prices charged at 514 Broadway. Primrose Tirocchi pointed out that Anna had begun her career in Rome as an apprentice to a dressmaker with an aristocratic clientele and that Anna "aimed for the same thing when she came to this country." In the United States, Anna targeted wealthy old-stock clients - the American equivalent of the aristocrats to whom her Roman employer catered - rather than the newly rich. Primrose noted that "she would turn Italians down. Not that she was prejudiced; it's just their attitude and what they expected. Anna said she was just going to handle who appreciates what I'm [sic] doing." Anna Tirocchi's reliance on the patronage of the established elite was not evidence of social climbing, for she appears to have kept her social life separate from that of her clients. She never, according to former worker Mary Rosa Traverso, mingled with her clients either in their homes or at her vacation retreat in Narragansett, a summer resort popular with well-to-to Rhode Islanders. Anna Tirocchi used the power that her artistry, skill, and sense of style brought her to choose the class of people for whom she would work. The husband of seamstress Mary Riccitelli Basilico, who worked for Anna throughout the early 1930s, remembered that Anna turned away Italian clients even during the worst years of the Depression, and Traverso emphasized that it was word of mouth more than advertising (Anna advertised only in the Junior League programs) that brought clients to the shop door.
Letters in the Tirocchi Archive offer a unique picture of relations between the Tirocchi shop and its customers. Most were written by clients, but a few are copies of letters written by Anna. They reveal relationships that range from the hostile and occasionally threatening through the businesslike and matter-of-fact to the friendly and even affectionate. The obvious caveat in using these letters as research materials is that most of them come from clients who lived or were traveling outside of Providence. They give us only the rarest glimpses of the more frequent dressmaker-client contacts over the telephone or in the house on Broadway. Such shortcomings aside, this correspondence constitutes the finest and fullest collection of letters to a single dressmaker in the United States. Wendy Gamber, author of the definitive study of custom dressmaking, used letters found in a search of clients' papers and was unable to construct the broad picture of one establishment that the Tirocchi Archive offers.(14)
The letters show that the relationships between the Tirocchi sisters and their clients were fraught with potential for sharp conflict and bitter recriminations, but also were graced with mutual satisfaction and deep gratification. Some reveal what appears to have been a genuine friendship between Anna and a client. Vacationing in Florida in 1940, Mira Hoffman sent Anna a gift; Anna's chatty thank-you letter bespeaks real feeling between the two, although not without a hint of flattery on Anna's part when she ended, "Please give us the pleasure to see you look twenty years younger when you return to Providence." Satisfied customers' letters reflected the pleasure they took in their Tirocchi clothing: Mrs. E. G. Butler wrote, "I know that you will be interested to know that my two gowns arrived safely on Monday and I was delighted to receive them. I have not yet tried them on but doubt not that they will be alright. Thank you so much for sending them."(15)
Clients were especially generous in their praise when the clothing was for a special occasion such as a wedding, and their letters indicate that when things went well between dressmaker and client, it could be gratifying to both. Alice Trowbridge wrote in the warmest terms to the Tirocchi sisters after her daughter Ruth's wedding: "I take great pleasure in sending you the enclosed check and wish you both to know that Mr. Trowbridge and I both appreciate the attention you showed us and the pleasure you evidently took in your work for our daughter, and we feel that your charges are very fair indeed." The Trowbridge wedding was not the only one for which Anna extended herself. Fall River bride Dorothy Newton thanked Anna for her gift of velvet for her wedding slippers. Weddings apparently created the ideal conditions for mutual satisfaction: elaborate clothing enhanced the pleasure of the occasion for the bride and her family at the same time that it gave the Tirocchi sisters an opportunity to showcase their talents.(16)
Satisfied customers praised the sisters' work, but with more attention to their friends' reactions to the clothes than to the dressmakers' skill and artistry. Scholars who have explored the history of female beauty in the United States have repeatedly noted the tendency to encourage women to judge themselves by the way others see them, and the letters in the Tirocchi Archive corroborate this point. When Charlotte Robinson Luther wore a new Tirocchi dress to a luncheon, "everybody thought it was lovely." Luther did not offer her own opinion of the dress, or comment on its style or construction, but only her reflection in others' eyes. On another occasion she wrote from New York, "Having a nice time and my friends like my clothes very much - guess I look better than most people." Elizabeth Phetteplace noted that a dress and coat ensemble had "been much admired"; Lucy Wall referred to a dress as a "great hit" and "a great sensation." The clothes crafted by the Tirocchi sisters clearly played a prominent role in the social lives of these wealthy women, enhancing their ability to perform as expected of their class and gender. Rarely, though, did customers explicitly attribute the credit for their appearance to their dressmakers. Mrs. Wall was unusual in doing so when, in the letter cited above, she referred to the acclaim for her dress as "a good compliment for you" and wrote that her friends thought it had come from Paris, a comment sure to warm Anna's heart. Even so, Wall undercut the praise by using the possessive in telling her friends, "Our Anna made it for me," reducing Anna's status from skilled artist and autonomous businesswoman to servant.(17)
Indeed, customers had more than a whiff of the servant and mistress relationship about it, although wealthy women's dealings with their servants are rarely simple and straightforward. Despite the servant's subordination to the mistress, the cliché that "no man is a hero to his valet" would doubly apply to servants and their mistresses. Wall's use of the possessive may have put Anna in her place, but Anna's skills made her customers as dependent upon her as she was on them. Even one of the Tirocchis' most quarrelsome clients bowed to Anna's judgment when she wrote, "I don't know what I want - I guess I would be happy with either you decide as being best for me so will leave it to you to do what you think will be the best and prettiest and most appropriate for me." Mrs. E. G. Butler assured Anna that "I would be guided by your judgment." Out-of-town customers were particularly reliant upon the Tirocchi sisters to make decisions for them, but it is easy to imagine customers who visited 514 Broadway asking the same questions about the suitability of color, fabric, and cut as they looked at fabric samples in the billiard room. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli recalled exactly this sort of scene: "They would say, Anna, what do you think? I'm going to this wedding.' Or I'm going to this so-and-so and whatever. What do you think I should wear?'"(18)
Even though Anna and Laura and their workers had tailoring skills and artistic insight that their clients may have lacked, these were women's skills and hence demystified, if not devalued. Most elite women did some sewing during their lives and had some understanding of the construction of clothing. In contrast, most elite men were not likely to share or understand the skills of an electrician, a plumber, or a shoemaker. Even though the shop's customers appreciated the Tirocchis' craft, their letters reveal that they often thought they knew both style and construction better than their dressmakers. Elizabeth Phetteplace was not entirely pleased with her "much admired" dress, wishing that "the rhinestone clasp was a little [better] and perhaps a trifle bigger." In fact, the most common theme of the surviving letters is complaint about style, cut, color, or construction.
Mood and personality shaped the customers' remarks: the relationships between clients and dressmakers were intensely personal and unconstrained by bureaucratic or formal procedures. Some women stated their complaints in a matter-of-fact, descriptive way that suggested a desire to get things right rather than to assert a class prerogative. Mrs. E. G. Butler complained mildly - "I am sorry to tell you that I am not quite satisfied with the front of my new gown" - and then wrote ten days later to thank Anna for the changes that she had made. Elizabeth A. Seaman made clear her appreciation for a dress that hadn't come out quite right when she wrote, "Will you give me more room at the bottom of the skirt - I love the dress, but wasn't able to take long enough steps." Often the complaints combine the general and the specific. One woman began an angry letter from Washington, D.C., by asserting that a dress sent to her was "impossible for me to wear as it is" and then went on to criticize the cut, the color, and fit in very concrete terms. Other customers moved beyond anger over specific features to attacks on the Tirocchis' skills. One can only imagine how the proud Anna would have reacted to a client's allegation that "neither dress was carefully finished"; or to another's that a waist was "a failure" with flaws so obvious that "I can't understand why you could not have seen [them]"; or to a third's threat that "If it is possible to make it fit..., I will be glad to have it otherwise I will have to get one somewhere else." The outbursts of anger testify that customers identified so intensely with the most minor details of their clothes that they saw errors as personal insults.(19)
Clients repeatedly demanded the Tirocchis' time and attention in ways that recalled mistresses' unbounded claims on their servants' time. They failed to recognize that the dressmakers were businesswomen with demanding schedules. A Fall River woman wrote on Friday, March 2, 1923, to announce that she would be in Providence on the following Monday for a fitting, clearly assuming that she could be accommodated, and breezily announced that "I have decided to have my clothes made this month instead of April." A Providence client wrote to say that she would appear for a fitting at a certain time on the following day, and another customer wrote a long letter peremptorily demanding two fittings in one day. The latter obviously thought nothing of requiring the shop to drop other work in order to turn its primary attention to fitting, sewing, and fitting her again. A Connecticut woman wheedled instead of demanding: "Can you not arrange it that way? and would it be possible for you to have both my dresses ready?I know you are just as busy as can be but perhaps some one who lives nearer would be willing to wait." Customers often complained childishly that someone else had gotten preferential treatment from Anna and Laura.(20)
The Tirocchi customers were covetous of the sisters' time and attention and unhappy when they felt they weren't getting enough of it. Another Fall River client scolded, "Now if you cannot promise me that time let me know immediately and I will look elsewhere. As I have a house to get furnished as well as a dress and wedding to look after." The issues of time and attention could provoke a genteel guerrilla war: when this woman paid a surprise visit to the Tirocchi workshop, she complained that she was told that Anna was "gone and I could not find out when you return." Not to be outdone, she left postage for Anna's reply with the boy - possibly Louis J. Cella, Jr. - who answered the door. A frequent customer perennially complained that Anna was neglecting her clothing, and, after being told one time too many that a fitting was to be delayed, she wrote, "I cant [sic] understand why I am constantly put off," and demanded a fitting at the scheduled time because she needed the dress for a luncheon engagement. Customers had a double standard about time. They made unilateral demands on the dressmakers' time, wreaking havoc with their work schedules, but they insisted that the dressmakers respect their own social schedules, thus inverting the business-oriented attitude of the day that time was money and should be valued according to its market rate. Customers' time, an unpaid commodity, took precedence because of the clients' social position. The time of the Tirocchi sisters and their employees, although compensated by wages, was devalued because of their class, painfully recalling the testimony of domestic servants who had no quarrel with the work they did, but resented bitterly that they were on call around the clock at their employers' whim.(21)
Despite customers' determination to exact deference and coddling from the Tirocchis, in the end the relationship was still a commercial one, and the bills had to be paid. Those bills were substantial, whether compared to the cost of ready-made clothes or to the incomes of the working-class majority. Mrs. H. A. (Margaret) DuVillard ran up an account of $668.50 at the Tirocchi establishment in 1921, about sixty percent of what a male factory worker earned in that year, and the Tirocchis' work for Dorothy Newton's June 1923 wedding came to $1797, a sum substantially higher than most Rhode Island working-class families then lived on for a year. Some customers felt they were getting good value for their money. At least twice, they wrote to request bills for work done. DuVillard made a clumsy joke of asking, "Where is my bill? I have never had to ask for it before - you must be on easy street and maybe are going to make me a present of clothes etc." This sort of joking inversion of the relative financial positions and power of client and dressmaker was apparently part of the verbal byplay of the relationship. Primrose Tirocchi recalled clients - whom she called "ladies" - saying to Anna, "You know, Anna, you have a better house than I do" [fig. 51]. The luxury and beauty of the establishment at 514 Broadway may indeed have galled some of the customers, who perhaps felt that Anna and Laura were putting on airs inappropriate to their social position. Another source of resentment may have been Anna's obvious success and prosperity as an astute businesswoman. Customers uncomfortable with their own financial dependence on male kin may well have resented Anna's independence and resolute adherence to high standards of work.(22)
Money, not surprisingly, became a source of conflict between dressmakers and customers. The blame was clearly two-sided. The Tirocchis ran a custom business where the price for each garment was set individually, and that price reflected not just the Tirocchis' costs but also negotiations between dressmaker and client and the dressmakers' estimation of what the market would bear. A given style of dress would cost less if the customer chose a cheaper fabric, but cost more with every additional bit of work she requested. In the larger commercial culture, fixed prices were the rule, but in the Tirocchi workshop the older practice of mutual agreement on price still prevailed. Customers pushed the sisters to give them firm prices, but then often asked for extras, expecting that the price would remain the same. What might begin as an agreeable discussion of price could end in acrimony. After a visit to 514 Broadway in May 1922, Charlotte Robinson Luther wrote Anna that she would not be able to afford the two dresses they had talked about, saying, "I don't b[l]ame you for going up on your price but I can not this year pay as much." She also took the trouble to list the clothes she had had from the sisters and their prices. When her bill arrived in early August, however, things turned sour. There had been many problems with the garments, alterations were required, and the bill was much higher than Luther had anticipated. She placed the blame squarely on Anna: "The waist of the crepe dress was always a failure so much so that I never wore it but a few times and when I did my friends remarked they wonder if I knew how badly it looked on me that I feel that you were only rectifying your own mistakes." Fortunately, Luther and Tirocchi had a long history of good relations that survived this dispute. Her letter closed: "If I am not doing the correct thing let me know and I wont [sic] bother you again." After Charlotte Luther's death, Anna Tirocchi wrote to Luther's executor that she would "miss her very much, not only for the business part, but for her personality" and remembered her as someone who "always paid her bills very very promptly."(23)
Relations with some other clients reflected more intense conflict. A Newport customer apparently had convinced the Tirocchi sisters to give her preferential prices, which remained a secret between them. The customer characterized the agreement as one between businesswomen and negotiated her prices relentlessly, but she showed a casual attitude toward her side of the bargain when she once "forgot" to give Anna a check while at the shop and on another occasion sent a check "which I though[t] I put in the letter I wrote you a few days ago." When she received a bill, she paid only what she had expected the prices to be, offered to negotiate about the charges above that level, and treated Anna to a long recital of her logistic and financial difficulties, clearly perceiving herself as different from the ordinary Tirocchi customer when she asserted, "I cannot afford what some of your customers can."(24)
Whether peacefully resolved or a source of bitterness, disputes over prices were an integral part of the custom trade, as dressmakers and clients each argued their version of the moral economy of clothing prices. These disagreements were compounded by two other customer practices that financially hobbled the Tirocchi business. First, customers often delayed payment. A quick look at the client account books makes clear why Anna so warmly praised Charlotte Luther's promptness. While most customers paid their bills within two weeks and many sent checks by return mail, some - often those with substantial balances - delayed far longer. A bill for $678 sent on October 6, 1916, for example, was not paid until the following February. Clients' letters give the story behind some of these delays and reveal that certain persons were more considerate than others. Cornelia Ely asked to have a bill sent at once, promising that "I will send or bring check so you can have it before you go abroad." More peremptory was Mrs. E. A. Loomis, who wrote from her Maine vacation home that she had found errors in her bill and would not pay until she returned to Providence in early September. Even during the prosperous 1910s and 1920s, customers wrote to delay payment because they had not received dividends or other expected income, and sent partial payment or postdated checks. At least one customer ran up bills amounting to $4,000 during the 1930s and had serious, protracted difficulty in paying them, to the point that Anna Tirocchi charged her twelve percent interest on the balance. The only dunning letters from Anna date from the 1930s. To one customer she wrote in exasperation, "It is not the time to joke any longer, as people need their money, and I must have mine so that I can pay my bills."(25)
The Tirocchis' business calculations were also disrupted by customers' cancellations of orders. It is not always possible to know if work had already begun on the garments, but sometimes this was clearly the case. Some customers reneged with good reason, such as serious illness or mourning. When Ella Fielding-Jones lost two close relatives, she revoked her order for two evening dresses and expressed concern that "I am not inconveniencing you too much." Others canceled because of disputes about other garments. Most simply canceled because they had changed their minds. A Fall River woman baldly stated, "I don't need [the dress]. I would rather have it new sometime in the winter." Such incidents increased the overhead of a business that was already very expensive to run and made it all the more difficult for the sisters to hold to quoted prices when extra work was required. As is always the case in retailing, the customer was both the key to success and the source of ruinous problems.(26)
The women in the Tirocchi shop worked far longer hours than those surveyed by the Women's Bureau. Tirocchi employees were ten times more likely than the latter to work fifty-four hours a week, then the legal maximum in the state. "General mercantile," the Women's Bureau category with the longest hours worked, required only about twenty-five percent of its female employees to work fifty-four hours, while more than forty percent of the Tirocchi employees' weeks were that long. As in many occupations, overtime at night and on weekends was common. This would have been the case particularly when the shop had to respond to customer-imposed deadlines or when big projects like weddings were underway. The time books never record over fifty-four hours a week for a given worker or any Sunday work, but Sofia Johnson's letter reports that she worked three hours on a Sunday. Like many employers of the time, the Tirocchis 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.(28)
The Tirocchi workers did escape one practice pervasive in Rhode Island: they were not required to take work home. Wage-earners in the clothing, textiles, jewelry, and artificial flower industries were frequently expected to complete unfinished work at home, making their residences into adjuncts of the factories. Anna and Laura Tirocchi prohibited this practice, but more out of concern for the fine fabrics than for the workers. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli explained, "You couldn't take that material out of the house! Because if you ever put it on a table and it was dirty, it would spoil, or something would happen. No, no! She never sent nothing out."(29)
Although Tirocchi workers avoided the abysmal pay rates associated with work taken home, their longer hours did not earn them fatter pay packets than those surveyed by the Women's Bureau. None of the Tirocchi seamstresses earned $20 or more per week, but nearly a third of the female employees in the Women's Bureau survey did. Nearly two-thirds of the Tirocchi workers earned less than $12 per week, while the Women's Bureau recorded only fifteen percent with such lean pay envelopes. Tirocchi employees more closely matched the Women's Bureau statistics in the middle pay ranges, where just under forty percent of the former and over fifty percent of the latter earned between $12 and $19.99 per week. The Tirocchi median weekly wage of $9 was just over half of that found for all workers by the Women's Bureau, and only three-quarters that of the lowest-paid group (five-and-dime-store employees). The Women's Bureau tabulated its data in a way that makes broad comparisons of hourly wage rates difficult, but it is possible to compare Tirocchi workers to those women who worked fifty-four-hour weeks. The median hourly rate for those surveyed by the Women's Bureau was well over one-and-a-half times the rate for Tirocchi employees.(30)
Post-World War I inflation exerted upward pressure on wages during October, November, and December 1920, the three months under consideration, and many of the Tirocchi workers achieved handsome raises. Between April 1919 and October 1920, Theresa Marianetti's weekly rate increased from $9 to $15, Rosina Pecora's from $10 to $19, and Veronica's from $9.50 to $21.60. Impressive gains by any standards, these increases far outstripped the rate of inflation, estimated by the Women's Bureau to be at most twenty-six percent between December 1918 and December 1920. Most raises came just after the New Year or in the weeks following the summer break, but they appear to have been negotiated individually rather than offered across the board. 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 two following weeks: thus eight of the nine women received raises within a four-week period. Whether the healthy raises recognized the seamstresses' skill or resulted from favoritism, they do show the Tirocchi sisters' efforts to retain their skilled workers at a time when wages in general were on the rise.(31)
This overall picture suggests that workers did not gravitate toward the Tirocchi workshop because of favorable hours and pay: they could clearly have done better in both respects in a variety of other jobs. The time books offer tantalizing glimpses of the attractions of work at 514 Broadway and of the ways it may have fit into women's lives beyond the job. Medians and averages homogenize the work force, but the time books reveal notable differences among the seamstresses and suggest some of the small dramas of daily life in the Tirocchi workshop. One of the most obvious divisions was the length of time women had spent working for the Tirocchi sisters. Just as the customers generally fit the prevailing pattern for women of their class, ethnicity, and race in that few were employed for pay, the workers generally fit what was by the 1910s a dominant pattern for women of the white immigrant working class. Mostly born in the United States, these immigrant daughters typically held jobs after leaving school and before either marrying, becoming pregnant, or having their first child. Mary Riccitelli Basilico appeared in the employee books off and on between 1921 and 1933, but her husband Panfilo Basilico remembered that she left the Tirocchis' employ when she became pregnant immediately after their marriage in 1936. Mary Rosa Traverso noted that "once they got married, they didn't go back. The husbands didn't want them to." As we shall see, however, women's wage-earning didn't necessarily end after marriage, although its visibility decreased.(32)
Because of the episodic quality of the employee books, it is difficult to know with certainty how long women worked for the Tirocchi sisters, and of course they may well have labored for other employers before or after they sewed at 514 Broadway. The data, however, suggests that of the thirty-nine women who could be traced in public records through the 1920s and 1930s, seven may be placed in a "career" category because they appear in the employee books over at least a ten-year span. To these might be added an eighth (Anna Del Matto) who probably worked that long. By contrast, twenty-two seamstresses appear to have been employed by the Tirocchis for three years or less. The result was a segmented work force with a relatively stable long-term component and a larger, more transient group of short-termers. This is precisely the pattern of labor that many late-twentieth-century corporations intentionally created, but in the case of the Tirocchi shop it is not clear whether the sisters desired such a distribution or whether it evolved because of the goals and desires of the workers themselves.
The needle trades have been and remain seasonal, both in the U.S. and Europe. The Tirocchi shop was no exception, closing each year during the 1920s for six to eight weeks in late summer, and for an additional few weeks in February and March during the mid-to-late 1930s. The 1919-21 time book shows some of the complexities of seamstresses' comings and goings. Theresa Marianetti began her summer break a month or two before the others in both 1919 and 1920. Perhaps she had schoolchildren who required her care. If so, the Tirocchi sisters valued her enough to allow her flexibility, for she returned to 514 Broadway in the fall of each year and received a pay increase of sixty-seven percent during these two years. (Theresa was an in-law of Salvatore Tirocchi's daughter Elvira Tirocchi Marianetti and also of Salvatore's granddaughter Louisa.) Some other work-force changes also seemed to have been seasonal in nature, with many employees disappearing during the summer break and many new workers appearing in the fall. In 1919, for example, five workers did not return at the end of the break, and five new ones took their places; but there were constant arrivals and departures. Seven weeks was the longest period in this time book during which the labor force remained the same.
Some women seem to have entered and left the Tirocchi work force in pairs or groups. Five women - Laura (definitely not Laura Tirocchi), Veronica, Margaret Volta, Marie, and Margaret C. - all left 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 first entry in that book, which was for the week of April 19, 1919, and they worked steadily until mid-January 1920. Laura returned only for two two-week stints in the late spring and early summer of 1920. Veronica and Margaret Volta returned to 514 Broadway within a week of each other in October 1920 and left forever within a week of each other in December. Judging by their pay rates, Veronica was a more skilled and/or experienced worker than Margaret Volta. Perhaps they worked as a team. Marie and Margaret C. began working for the Tirocchis at the end of the summer 1919 break and worked steadily until mid-January 1920. Because their names are so common, it is difficult to trace their subsequent history. Were all five laid off in the post-Christmas business lull? Were they friends who quit in some act of solidarity? Were they on the losing end of a workplace dispute?(33)
The five women were almost certainly not laid off for 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 wages were $66.90. The Tirocchis were clearly not cutting the overall payroll or seeking to hire cheaper workers, since the average salary of the new hires was $1.25 a week more than that of the departed seamstresses. Some, but far from all, of the higher wages are attributable to the fact that post-World War I inflation had not yet run its course. More likely, the Tirocchis were trying to upgrade their work force. Three of those who departed were paid at middling rates and two at low rates; two of their replacements earned top rates, four earned middling rates, and only one a low rate. This interpretation is supported by the fact that three of the new employees - Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, Patricia Scalera, and Ida Del Matto - became "career" workers who each spent well over ten years with the Tirocchi shop.
The eight "career" women might be considered a core group of Tirocchi employees, an interpretation strengthened by the testimony of oral history. In addition to their longevity at the Tirocchi firm, Anna and Ida del Matto, Mary Riccitelli Basilico, Patricia Scalera, Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, Grace Venagro, Theresa Marianetti, and Rosina Pecora were all Italian, and all of those who are known to have married wedded Italian men. In this, they were distinct from the short-term employees. The latter were still predominantly Italian (nineteen), but eleven did not have Italian last names. Two each had Irish and Jewish last names, one French, and five were of uncertain but clearly non-Italian ethnicity, while the eleventh was born in the Azores. This ethnic pattern fits into the larger picture for young wage-earning women in the United States at the time. Although workplaces often had a dominant ethnic character, hiring and job-seeking practices were imperfect segregation devices. As a result, workers usually encountered people of different ethnicities, religions, and cultural backgrounds on the job. Despite the heterogeneity of the early Tirocchi work force, its predominant character was Italian and became more so over time. By the late 1930s, all were Italian. Even more telling is the fact that Italian women were listed in the time books by first name or, more rarely, by first and last names, but women with obviously non-Italian last names - Larkin, Morey, and Remus - were referred to as "Mrs."
As the longest-term workers, this group of eight Italian women formed the core of the labor force. They were the best paid and presumably the most skilled seamstresses in a group with varying degrees of experience and ability. Skill differences were reflected in widely varying pay scales. The Tirocchi workers during those last three months of 1920 fell into three categories. Six women at the top of the pay scale earned from twenty-eight to forty cents an hour. Four in the middle range earned about seventeen cents an hour, and three at the bottom earned from nine to eleven cents per hour. This stratification persisted through the 1920s and well into the 1930s, but the differences between the highest and lowest paid narrowed sharply. In 1919-20, the lowest-paid worker earned about eleven percent of what the highest-paid earned. In 1926 the ratio was fourteen percent, and it grew to forty-two percent in 1934 and to seventy-four percent in 1937-38. The narrower spread in wages was probably linked to the decline in custom work, which required much low-skilled work such as basting.
Some women came to the shop without a great deal of sewing experience and started at the bottom of the ladder. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, who herself was to become one of the career workers, remembered this hierarchy. When she began working at the Tirocchi workshop in 1920, she looked up to four of the other career workers: Anna and Ida del Matto, Grace Venagro, and Mary Riccitelli Basilico. As Martinelli put it: "They were the oldest girls that would do all the best. We would sew too, but they would do the better work." Mary Rosa Traverso recalled starting in 1934 as an unpaid "apprentice" who basted the clothing together and overcast the seams inside the garments to finish them. By this time, however, the ancient system of apprenticeship had decayed, and Traverso's "apprenticeship" was more of a dead-end entry-level position than one that guaranteed her a mastery of the entire range of the craft. By the time she left, after three years, she had learned little more than her initial tasks of basting and overcasting. In this respect, Traverso's history was typical of young and inexperienced women: she worked briefly and learned some limited skills, but not an entire craft.
Tirocchi associates interviewed for this project repeatedly stated that the shop was like a family: in Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli's words, "Even better than family because we never argued." Given that the majority were short-term workers, however, it was probably a very hierarchical family with the career workers at top. By the time Mary Riccitelli married Panfilo Basilico, he recalled that she had attained the position of head sewer. Primrose Tirocchi remembered that one of the Del Matto sisters performed as the model. Other career workers very likely had their own distinct roles. Martinelli 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. And we didn't have to be related because we were one family. We always stuck together. We stuck up for one another like nobody's business." Anna del Matto was godmother to Martinelli's children. According to Italian custom, this made Anna and Emily kin. The notions of family held by the Tirocchi workers were sharply at variance with those held by the customers. Family for the clients referred to blood kin, the connections embodied in such lineage organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution that were so popular among them. For the workers, family went beyond blood and incorporated relationships based on godparenting, neighborhood, and working together.
The connections within the shop were reinforced in the outside world. Mary Riccitelli Basilico's husband Panfilo told interviewers that his wife obtained her job when "somebody took her in there - that's the only way you got in." Grace Venagro brought her downstairs neighbor, Mary Rosa Traverso, into the Tirocchi shop. Neighborhood contacts probably contributed widely to staffing the shop. All of the employees whose addresses could be ascertained resided on the West Side of Providence, in sharp contrast to the customers, who nearly all lived on the East Side. The largest and most concentrated group of worker residences (nine) was located in Federal Hill, then the center of Italian settlement in Providence, and a similar number were scattered more widely in the Silver Lake and Olneyville areas.
Tirocchi employees even vacationed together. When the shop closed down during the summer, the workers were expected to clean the house; then Anna Tirocchi went to her retreat in Narragansett, to which the workers were invited for a week [fig. 52]. Employer-sponsored leisure became increasingly popular during the period between the World Wars, and both factories and department stores organized such excursions. In the case of large companies, this practice was designed to promote workers' loyalty to the firm and to make them feel like part of a contrived, industrial "family," as well as to encourage efficiency. In the case of the Tirocchi shop, it grew more organically out of the close relationships among workers and employers.(34)
The "family" had a strong head. As Martinelli remembered, "We listened to Mrs. Tirocchi [meaning Anna, although it was Laura who was married]. She had the whole say, and we would listen to her." Anna's artistry translated into perfectionism in her management of the workshop. Mary Riccitelli's husband, Panfilo Basilico, recalled his wife telling him that "Madame [Anna] - she was very strict. The rules were very strict. You had to be - to do everything perfect. You couldn't do anything...even on the outside, anything wrong. You had to be a perfect person and you got to be exact in your work." When Basilico began to court Riccitelli, Anna summoned him to the shop, and only after interrogating him did she give Mary her approval to go out with him. By all accounts, the workers admired Anna enormously for her skills, her manner, and her intelligence. Mary Rosa Traverso, who never rose beyond the lowest rank of the shop hierarchy, reminisced that it was "wonderful to work for her. It really was." Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli described the way in which she taught and corrected the seamstresses: "She used to get you in a nice way. She never scolded anybody. No, she never scolded." Disputes among the employees were, she remembered, always settled by Anna. Basilico spoke admiringly of Anna, praising "her intelligence and her drive," and Martinelli referred to her as "the brains" and "an artist in her way."
This "family" was also to some extent ethnically exclusive. Traverso recalled that they conversed in Italian among themselves, although they all spoke English. Communicating in Italian would have been a way to marginalize the non-Italian short-term workers and to draw the Italian short-term or low-ranking employees into the career workers' circle, as apparently happened with Traverso. The shared ethnicity of the owners, the career workers, and the majority of the short-term workers gave them a bond that went beyond other communal experiences of the shop.
The familial nature of the Tirocchi establishment was reinforced by its small size. At its largest, during the 1920s, the median number of seamstresses in any given week was fourteen, a group large enough to have its cliques and divisions, but also small enough to have a common experience. At a time when more and more wage earners were laboring in large establishments - the sites investigated by the Women's Bureau averaged 404 workers, and even the jewelry factories averaged 100 - these women continued to work in a small shop where they knew one another and their employers well. Ready-made clothing outsold custom-made garments at the Tirocchi establishment from 1924 on, but the shift did not have a dramatic effect on the size of the work force. In 1926, the median weekly roster was still fourteen, and it fell only to twelve in 1928. Even the Depression had a delayed effect on the sewing room at 514 Broadway. The work force remained at around ten until early 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. The seamstresses' experience went against the historical trend toward larger and larger workplaces, but it was shared with Italian immigrant men, about two in every five of whom worked in a similar setting. Even as late as 1940, over a fifth of self-employed Italian craftsmen had daughters who were also employed in the crafts.(35)
The women sewed at two tables pulled close to the windows. Conversation would have been easy since most of the work was done by hand, although at least by the 1930s there were both sewing and hemstitching machines in the shop. The workers ate together either in a small dining room near their third-floor workroom or, in good weather, out on a porch. Some were provided with lunches by the Tirocchis, and some brought their own food. They took turns making coffee. Occasionally, Martinelli remembered, "the girls used to go out and take a walk." The most vivid description of life in the sewing room came from Mary Riccitelli Basilico's husband. Panfilo recalled that when he came home from his work in an East Side bakery, he passed by 514 Broadway. After he and Mary had begun courting, the sewing women would drop their work and come to the windows to shout greetings to him, using his nickname of "Bombi." Like young women throughout the country, the seamstresses incorporated the talk and rituals of courtship into their work lives.
The workshop was clearly separate from the customers' territory on the second floor of the house, but the needlewomen themselves were not entirely isolated from the clientele. All of those interviewed named some of the customers, were well aware of their social positions, and knew a few details about their families and their personalities. Presumably, the customers were as much the subject of third-floor gossip as the workers' romances. The seamstresses knew enough about the customers' visits to indicate that they were sometimes in the room when clients had fittings or viewed fabrics. Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., recalled that "when the little girls were working they would use all the premises during the day." The sewing women also made deliveries. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli remembered "go[ing] out nights" with Anna del Matto to deliver dresses. Martinelli also recalled that she, Anna and Ida del Matto, and Mary Riccitelli Basilico ("We were the smallest ones") would help dress brides for their weddings.
The seamstresses could easily have become resentful because of the obvious economic gulf between themselves and the clients, but this seems not to have been the case. While a few customers were notorious for their high-handed behavior, such as the one who "just wanted to show her power...because of her husband's power," the workers did not tar them all with the same brush. Basilico remembered his wife's judgment that some clients "were nice and some of them were cranky old ladies," but that she had no hostility toward them as a group. The interviews indicate that Tirocchi seamstresses took enormous pride in their skills, in creating beautiful clothing, and in working in a fine mansion. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, while telling interviewers about restoring a customer's piece of fine lace, sighed, "That was a place to work. So beautiful." Even more importantly, and in sharp contrast to most workers who made luxury goods, Tirocchi seamstresses were able to share in what they made. Each worker who married received as a gift from Anna and Laura a wedding gown that was the equal of any created for the paying customers [fig. 53]. Making these gowns, of course, would have been another practice that bonded the workers together.
The skills and experience gained in the Tirocchi shop served many of the workers well after they left 514 Broadway. The later occupations of thirteen of them are known: eleven remained in the needle trades, all in small-shop settings. Lino Picolo married a tailor in 1929, the same year that she worked for the Tirocchi sisters. In all likelihood, she would have plied her craft alongside him in his shop. Anna del Matto, who never married, went on to sew for Topal-Carlson and Jean's Inc. At these exclusive Providence shops, she would have altered ready-to-wear garments rather than making custom clothing, but she would have been sewing on quality garments as well as serving a clientele very like that of the Tirocchis. Mary Rosa Traverso became a free-lance seamstress after leaving A. & L. Tirocchi, but then worked for Mrs. Bernstein, a downtown Providence 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 Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., reported that she was "of great assistance" in taking on some of the Tirocchi clients after the shop at 514 Broadway closed.(36)
Sewing was not just the center of the workers' wage-earning lives, but an important part of their family and social lives as well. Mary Riccitelli Basilico, her husband reported, "went on sewing...because she loved it, she loved to create, she loved...making things." She had, he recalled, the same ability as Anna Tirocchi to design apparel without patterns and made beautiful clothes for their daughter. Mary Rosa Traverso also sewed "tailor-made" garments for her daughter and continued to make wedding gowns, having somewhere picked up the art of beading, one of the skills she had not learned in the Tirocchi workshop. Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli spoke lovingly of the finely finished snowsuits she made for her daughters. Even so, the evidence of written documents and interviews undoubtedly captures only a small part of the role that sewing played in the lives of these women. Mary Riccitelli Basilico continued to make wedding gowns in her home, assisted by Mary Rosa Traverso and Grace Venagro during the evenings, and Panfilo Basilico would drive the two home afterwards. This activity is not recorded in the 1935 census report, which lists Mary Basilico as neither working at a gainful occupation nor seeking work. Even more telling is the fact that Panfilo Basilico mentioned Mary's continued dedication to sewing, but neither its collective nor money-making functions. Like much of the workers' lives, their sewing remains partly invisible in the historical record, but there is enough evidence to conclude with certainty that their skills were an enduring source of support, pride, and community. Mary Rosa Traverso reported that the career workers with whom she remained friendly were close "until they all died." One may indeed wonder if these seamstresses did not garner more satisfaction from their work than the clients experienced in wearing the fine apparel constructed at 514 Broadway.
Insert Chart of Tirocchi Clients Resident on the East Side
Many thanks to Edward Benson, Katherine Benson, and Sharon Hartman Strom for their very helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.
The interviews referred to and quoted in this essay are to be found in the A. & L. Tirocchi Archive, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Such references have not been footnoted. All letters sent or received by Anna or Laura Tirocchi are understood to be found in the Tirocchi Archive. See "Note on the A. & L. Tirocchi Archive, Collection, and Catalogue," p. 23.