Strategies for Success: The Tirocchis, Immigration, and the Italian American Experience
John W. Briggs
Branches of the Tirocchi family began to assemble in Providence in the early years of the twentieth century. They joined over four million Italians and other Southern and Eastern Europeans who entered the United States during the forty years prior to World War I. In waves of heavy and sustained immigration, these people came to America in search of employment within a rapidly expanding urban industrial economy [fig.54]. Like so many of them, the Tirocchis came from a small rural village. Their hometown of Guarcino lies south of Rome in the province of Frosinone among the foothills of the mountainous center of the Italian peninsula [fig. 55]. At the time of their emigration, the nearest railroad was about ten miles away in the provincial capital. Later, a spur line was constructed to the town [fig. 56]. As late as 1930, the local hotel offered twenty beds to the tourists who used Guarcino as a base from which to climb the seven-thousand-foot Monte Viglio. Guarcino today remains a small, remote community with a population of approximately eighteen hundred inhabitants.(1)
The Tirocchi families, like most immigrants, came from the middle ranges of the working classes and not from the most impoverished segments of the home society. The very poor, in addition to lacking resources to finance emigration, were also generally disheartened and did not possess the psychological capital necessary to embark on such a wrenching experience. The wealthy and professional classes seldom left their homeland. The former had no need to pursue greater opportunities, and the latter, if they did leave, found that their European training seldom qualified them for practice in the United States, thus immigrant professionals usually experienced significant loss of status. Even in times of severe hardship, emigration was a selective process. Far more people stayed behind than relocated. Those, such as Anna Tirocchi and her family, who chose to risk all in search of opportunity, were a special subset of the larger population. Their skills and personal characteristics would be put to good use in the United States.(2) As Anna's niece Primrose Tirocchi put it, their family came "to get ahead."
Eugenio Tirocchi and Maria Rossi Tirocchi, progenitors to nearly all of the family members in Providence, were listed as "contadini" - "peasants" or "farmers" in the rural Italian status classification system - in the Stato Civile records for Guarcino. Three of their sons, Nazzareno, Giuseppe, and Tito, as well as their daughters-in-law, were likewise recorded as "contadini." The category of "contadini" did not preclude other undertakings beyond an individuals primary economic activity. Two of Tito's sons indicated that their family worked as teamsters transporting paper from a factory in Guarcino to Rome by mule and wagon. Only the father of Maria Rossi was listed as "possidente," suggesting that he had substantial holdings in land or other agricultural capital (see the Tirocchi genealogy on pp. 98- 99 for an outline of the family relationships).(3)
The birth, death, and marriage records for fifty other Tirocchis in Guarcino suggest that they were all from modest social and economic backgrounds. Twenty were listed as "contadini." An equal number were identified as "pastori" ("shepherds"). Four women were listed as "pecorare" ("sheep herders"), and an equal number merited "donne di casa" or "cassalinge," which usually suggested a somewhat higher status. There were only three references to "possidenti." Other families in Guarcino with whom the Tirocchis were associated either by marriage or business included the Del Signores [fig. 57], De Meis, and Furias. All but one Del Signore listing were "muratori" or "falegnami": "masons" or "carpenters." The largest number of De Meis entries were "possidenti," but there were also "contadini," two "falegnami," and one "cavaliere" ("gentleman"). Furia listings were almost all "contadini." The lowest occupational classification, "braccianti" ("day laborers"), was not used by the community clerk to label any of the numerous persons considered above.(4)
In a classic chain migration, three branches of the Tirocchi family had settled by 1910 in the southwest corner of Providence at its border with Cranston and Johnston, an area referred to then and now as the Silver Lake district (see map, p. 97). Silver Lake would remain the locale for many of the future business enterprises initiated by the family. This Italian community, while not the largest in the Providence area, had been a center of settlement for immigrants since the late nineteenth century. There were five areas of Italian settlement in Providence before World War I. Federal Hill was the largest. In addition to Silver Lake, there also were enclaves in the North End, Eagle Park, and South Providence. Early arrivals, often from northern Italy, worked in agriculture, and a number eventually owned and operated their own farms. Through the years, Providence newspapers published generally complimentary accounts of this community.(5)
Salvatore Tirocchi, son of Eugenio and Maria and brother to Nazzareno, Giuseppe, and Tito, was one of the first family members to come to the United States. He and two of his older sons, Luigi and Gerardo, entered the U.S. in 1902. It is unclear when they arrived in Providence, but this was probably by 1907, when Salvatore's wife Luisa and their younger children joined him. In 1908, Salvatore was listed as residing at 18 Alto Avenue in the Providence City Directory. According to the 1910 federal census, he lived with his wife and children at 50 What Cheer Avenue. In that year, Salvatore was operating a cement-block manufacturing enterprise, while three of his older boys (Gerardo, Giuseppe, and Augusto) worked as laborers for a railroad and Luigi was employed by the City of Providence. The only daughter, Elvira, was a spinner in a worsted mill, and the youngest son, Giovanni, attended school. While the parents are listed as speaking Italian, all of the children spoke English and, like their father, were literate.(6) Between 1910 and 1920, Salvatore with five of his six sons - Luigi, Gerardo, Giuseppe, Augusto, and Giovanni - developed the Rhode Island Improved Cement Works Company and the Rhode Island Laundry Company. By 1920, Salvatore was managing the Tirocchi Brothers Motor Trucking, which offered local and long-distance hauling. After Salvatore's death in 1925, his son Luigi assumed presidency of the family enterprises. Other brothers filled the vice-president, secretary, and treasurer positions. After World War II, the brothers added a real estate firm to the list.
A second branch of the family - children of Salvatore's brother Tito Tirocchi - first appeared in the 1906 Providence City Directory, where one of Tito's sons was recorded as a laborer boarding at 25 Hillhurst Street. Tito's daughter Maria and his son Giuseppe arrived in 1907. The 1910 census placed Maria and her husband Francesco Furia at 489 Union Avenue with their ten-month-old daughter Armelinda. Francesco had immigrated in 1906 and was working as a street laborer for the City of Providence. Maria's brother Giuseppe boarded with the family and was also a street laborer. In 1914, Tito's sons Eugenio and Mario were boarding at 140 Prudence Avenue. Two years later the Furias moved to 144 Prudence Avenue, which became their longtime family home. Tito left Italy for Providence late in life to be near his children after the death of his wife. Like Salvatore and his sons, male members of Tito's family were first employed as laborers; and like their uncle and cousins, they soon turned to business ventures. By 1921, Eugenio and his brother Giuseppe were respectively vice president and secretary/general manager of Ideal Concrete Products Company, Inc., on Hartford Avenue. Within a few years Giuseppe was functioning as president and general manager, while his wife Assunta served as secretary for the business. Eugenio moved on to cement contracting. Giuseppe then established J. Tirocchi Construction, which his grandchildren continue to operate as AA Construction in Johnston. The Hartford Avenue property was the location for a number of businesses, including a tire-retreading plant and a miniature golf course. Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tito's son Angelo worked as a laborer and janitor. In 1935, he opened an auto service station at 314 Hartford Avenue, which he continued to operate after World War II. Tito's youngest son, Mario, listed himself as a contractor and builder in 1925 and branched out with the Tirocchi Cement Block Company. In the latter years of the 1920s, he established the Rhode Island Column Company, then moved into the auto-service sector in 1932 with the Huntington Avenue Filling Station. After the Second World War, he opened a tire-retreading company. Later, he would operate a milk delivery business, an auto service station, and another tire-retreading business.
Anna, Laura, Eugenia, and Frank Tirocchi represent the third, but not necessarily the latest, branch of the family to settle in Providence. Anna and Laura came to the United States in 1905. Anna, Eugenia, and Frank were the children of Nazzareno and Rosa Fraticalli Tirocchi, and Laura was their half-sister, the daughter of Rosa's second husband, Giuseppe Tirocchi (the deceased Nazzareno's brother). Family oral tradition holds that Anna and Laura first worked in New York before arriving in Providence. By 1910, they were boarding with their sister Eugenia and her second husband Luigi Valcarenghi at a store-and-apartment block at 324 Pocasset Avenue in Providence, about two blocks from their uncle Salvatore and their cousins in uncle Tito's family. Eugenia and Luigi Valcarenghi had entered the United States in 1907 and most likely settled in Providence soon thereafter. Their son William was born in Rhode Island in 1908 or early 1909. By 1910, Luigi was working as a house painter and owned the block on Pocasset Avenue with the help of a mortgage. Frank Tirocchi, brother to Anna and Eugenia and half-brother to Laura, also immigrated in 1905, but does not appear in the Providence City Directory until 1914. Frank Tirocchi spent a part of the time between 1905 and 1914 as a labor contractor (padrone) for railroad construction in Canada [fig. 58]. A dated photograph in the Tirocchi Archive captures him and his crew at a "B. &A. R.R." (Bangor and Aroostoock Railroad) work site in 1909 [fig. 59]. Laura appears in another photo with Frank and a gang of construction workers [fig. 54, p. 78]. Railroad work and sojourns in Canada were also a part of the early experience of other family members. Tito's sons Eugenio and Giuseppe told their children of laying rail in the Canadian "wilderness." Another son, Angelo, spent time in Maine, where he joined the American military in 1908. Salvatore's eldest son, Federico Achille Tirocchi, served as a priest in Quebec before being assigned to build a parish for Italian and French Canadian immigrants in the Natick section of West Warwick, Rhode Island.(7)
In 1914, Frank and his new bride Maria Del Signore, a woman with artisan and middle-class family ties in Italy, set up housekeeping at 39 Bradford Street on Federal Hill following their marriage in February. Frank was listed in the 1914 Directory as a clerk at the Roma Pharmacy on Federal Hill's Atwells Avenue, the heart of Providence's largest Italian settlement.(8) He also worked in a machine shop briefly before starting a trucking business and hiring out his services to the City of Providence. From 1928 through 1931, he ran his trucking business [fig. 60] from Anna's Broadway residence and lived in one of her apartments on nearby Tobey Street. His son, Frank Jr., became a dentist. His daughter, Primrose, had a long career in fashion and sales at the Outlet Department Store, where she specialized in millinery. She designed hats and had her own show downtown at the Biltmore Hotel in the 1930s [fig. 61].
Anna and her siblings were adults at the time of their departure from Italy. According to the 1910 federal census, Anna at thirty-five years of age was the oldest, Eugenia was thirty, Frank was twenty-five, and Laura twenty-two.(9) Both Anna and Laura spoke English and were literate, according to the census, although it is not known where they acquired this learning. Perhaps it was during their first years in the United States, when they worked for others. Eugenia was literate, but spoke only Italian. The 1920 census lists Frank as literate. Given his labor contracting and trucking activities, it may probably be assumed that he was proficient in his use of English. Such facility was an essential quality for padroni, who served as middlemen between North American employers and immigrant laborers having little or no English.
The Tirocchis found Providence a thriving industrial city of just under a quarter of a million inhabitants in 1910. During the previous two decades the population had increased by thirty-three percent and twenty-eight percent respectively, slowing by 1910 and increasing only around six percent for the next two decades. In 1910, Providence was the twentieth largest city in the United States. By 1950, it had slipped to forty-third and was one hundredth in 1980. At the beginning of the century its economy was built around cotton and worsted mills, rubber products, machine-tool fabrication, and jewelry and silver manufacture. A few of the Tirocchis found employment in these industries, but most turned to entrepreneurship. Salvatore's cement-block company and Anna and Laura's dress shop were the first family enterprises, followed by a grocery store, two more cement-product companies, a laundry, two trucking concerns, three gas-station/auto-service firms, two tire-retreading shops, rental properties, a miniature golf course, a dairy, a plumbing business, and a real-estate company. With the exception of the Valcarenghis and Laura and Anna, all adult members of the family's branches were in the contracting, construction, and trucking business at one time or another, and most owned gravel banks, which provided raw materials for some of their various enterprises. They also sold sand, gravel, and loam. Collectively, the family enterprises represent a vertical integration of the construction business.
The 1910 census lists Anna and Laura Tirocchi as wage-earning tailors. Family history indicates that they worked briefly for Rose Carraer-Eastman, later Madam Zarr, a prominent dressmaker patronized by wealthy East Side women. Whatever their earlier employment in Providence, they wasted little time in setting up their own business. In 1911, they opened their dress shop in the Butler Exchange [fig. 62], situated downtown in the center of Providence. They shared their Westminster Street business address with lawyers, doctors, dentists, and other professionals. Wholesalers, insurance agents, music teachers, the Republican State Committee, the Rhode Island Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Rhode Island Sunday School Association were also among the tenants of that building. In 1913, a firm of patent attorneys and the Crown Gold Mining and Milling Company of Nova Scotia flanked the Tirocchi "gown" suite on the fourth floor. The fifth and sixth floors were given over largely to music teachers.
Anna and Laura joined their brother Frank and his wife as boarders in the newlyweds' home, but the sisters' stay was short. In 1915, Laura married a young American-born physician, Louis J. Cella,(10) who had set up his practice in the Valcarenghis' building on Pocasset Avenue. Anna purchased a large mansion at 514 Broadway in a then fashionable section of the city [see frontispiece]. She and the new couple converted part of the first floor into a doctor's office and the second into a dressmaking shop, living primarily on the third floor, which also housed the workshop for the dressmaking business. As self-designated "gown makers," the Tirocchi sisters sought to distinguish themselves from others who were simply identified as "dressmakers." Moving to the stately Victorian house on Broadway [fig. 63] was a major step in this direction. While in the Butler Exchange, they had been directly across Westminster Street from twenty-five milliners and five dressmakers who had shops located in the historic Arcade [fig. 64]. Other dressmakers and tailors for ladies were scattered about the city center. Through marriage and geography the sisters were moving away from the larger Italian immigrant community and toward middle-class status.
Dressmaking as a trade in Providence had reached its peak in 1906, when 890 practitioners were listed in the City Directory. This was six times the number of dressmakers recorded in 1880 (146). By 1910, the number had decreased to 754. Anna thus built her successful business in the context of a declining market for custom-made women's clothing. Increasing competition from the ready-made clothing market and department-store dressmaking departments was driving a large number of independent dressmakers from the trade. During the next twenty years their numbers continued to drop rapidly, falling to 466 in 1920 and to 245 in 1930. By 1937, dressmakers in Providence numbered 144, equal to the 1880 level, a mere sixteen and a half percent of the 1906 peak.
In the face of competition, the Tirocchi sisters distinguished themselves through the prime location of their shop, their self-identification as makers of "gowns," and the employ of upwards of a dozen women in their operation. According to the family account, the sisters' vocational preparation resulted from contacts their mother had made while working as a cook in Rome, where Anna and Laura became apprenticed to a dressmaker whose customers were upper-class city dwellers. In Providence, Anna - the driving force in the enterprise - quickly demonstrated her skill at cultivating an exclusive clientele, as well as her dressmaking artistry.(11)
Dressmaking was characterized by features not common to other occupations popular with immigrants in the U.S. Producers and consumers joined together, often across class lines, to create original and highly personal products. Dressmakers found that social distance from their clients presented challenges to their free assertion of creativity and taste. Upper-class clients did not necessarily feel comfortable relying on their social inferiors in so intimate an area as fashion and also may have experienced some discomfort in exposing their bodies and tastes to tradeswomen. Dressmakers often sought to camouflage or reduce perceived class differences by adopting and projecting characteristics that reinforced their status and authority as artists and experts, thus clouding their working-class and immigrant origins. One of the most common strategies was to assert personal ties to the centers of high fashion, especially Paris. Claims of frequent trips to international style centers and the appropriation of the title "Madam" or "Madame" were used to distinguish a "gown maker" from her more common sister artisans who did not enjoy upper-class patronage. Anna employed both of these tactics. She decorated the mansion on Broadway with fine European antiques and other furnishings. Her shop stationary in the 1920s was headed by a blue band highlighting the words "Di Renaissance," which suggested the European connection she sought to establish, and she did nothing to undermine the family's idea that while in Rome she had been employed by a dressmaker to the queen of Italy. Her full-page advertisement in the program for the 1928 Junior League presentation of the musical comedy Oh Boy [figs. 65- 66] proclaimed "Exclusive Importations of Sportswear Coats and Suits" and included the following announcement: "Madam Tirocchi is now abroad attending the opening and selecting models and merchandise from different countries, for the Spring and Summer, which, by invitation, will be shown at the end of March."(12)
Although frequent travel to Paris and New York is often mentioned with regard to Anna, there is no real documentation to verify annual "buying trips." Shop accounts and other written material in the Tirocchi Archive does indicate that she went to Europe on business in 1924, 1926- 27, 1931, and 1938. While Anna listed customs duties as an expense only in her 1926 tax calculations, there are substantial customs declarations in the Tirocchi Archive for merchandise purchased in Paris in both 1924 and 1926. In early 1927, as she continued the journey begun in 1926, Anna bought some merchandise in Florence. While attempting to recover her health during an extended European trip in 1938, she visited Nice, where she saw no dresses that she wanted and was put off by the prices and the prospect of paying customs on any imports. Anna's employee and niece Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, other workers, and family members have mentioned frequent trips abroad, but extant evidence remains only for the four noted above. The easy acceptance of regular sojourns in European fashion capitals in the accounts of various dressmakers is not especially puzzling, as the self-aggrandizement of both client and provider was served by the general acceptance of claims of a dressmaker's close and regular connection to the centers of haute couture. Historian Lois Banner explores the role of dressmakers "as a power in the land" promoting standards of fashion and beauty in the United States: "...the most successful had...also mastered the relationship between salesperson and client and were effectively able to manipulate their patrons by a subtle mixture of flattery and imperiousness." These phrases perfectly encapsulate much of the surviving description of Anna as an artist-businesswoman.(13)
Accounts of Anna as an employer indicate she was respected, but was not particularly generous in her pay rates. Following the classic pattern for proprietors of successful shops, she hired young women or girls as "apprentices" and paid them low wages, a practice justified by the theory that the girls were learning a valuable trade. While in high school, Louisa Furia D'Amore, the daughter of Anna's cousin Maria and the granddaughter of Tito Tirocchi, worked briefly in the shop at her mother's urging, but Louisa recalled being frustrated by the slow pace at which Anna taught her the trade. While Anna kept her close by and exposed her to the business by allowing her to be present when clients were being served, she was not allowed to talk or report to others about what transpired. Louisa's duties consisted largely of picking up pins and sewing hooks on the insides of garments. She eventually left the shop to work in a handkerchief factory. Mary Rosa Traverso recalled that she herself began working in the shop at age sixteen but eventually moved on because she did not make much money. After leaving Anna's employ, Traverso worked twelve years for Mrs. Bernstein, who had a downtown shop in the Lapham Building on Westminster Street. On one occasion at least, Anna may have flouted child-labor and school-attendance laws when attempting to hire young girls.(14)
Anna paid more substantial wages to her most skilled workers. She is remembered as an exacting supervisor who insisted on high quality work from her employees. Both Louisa Furia D'Amore and Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., recalled her directing the third-floor workers by calling instructions down the hall from her room on days when she was too ill to leave her bed. Anna took an interest in the lives of her employees, advising them on the choice of a husband and providing trousseaus for some. Panfilo Basilico recalls being summoned to meet with Madam Tirocchi and to receive her approval before marrying one of the shop workers, Mary Riccitelli. Anna also provided a week's vacation at her summer retreat at Narragansett Pier for her "shop girls." They stayed in an apartment over the garage and had their meals in a log cabin attached to the main house. Beatrice Cella, Laura's daughter, anticipated their arrival for their week of vacation [figs. 67- 69], for "then the fun begins. We play tennis every day and have a fine time." "There [sic] doing all the cooking so I think it will be our holiday instead of theirs."(15)
Something of Anna's personality and self-confidence is reflected in a letter she sent to E. L. DuPont de Nemours in 1939, following her return from an extended stay in Europe, during which she visited Italian and French factories. She suggested mixing rayon with milk and soya beans to produce an elastic thread for stockings. Anna thought they might be called "MILK TRADE STOCKINGS by DUPONT."(16) She sent the letter by registered mail. Vincenzo (Jimmy) Tirocchi recalled occasionally chauffeuring Anna around town when he was a youth. On one trip she insisted that he double park in front of the Columbus Exchange Trust Company so that she could go in and "show him how to do business." With Jimmy in tow she marched into the manager's office and proceeded to aggressively negotiate a much reduced interest rate for a loan she was seeking.
Anna's two physical disabilities also may have contributed to the aura that impressed and somewhat intimidated her workers. She had some sort of problem with one leg and one arm and used these maladies to her advantage on occasion. An Internal Revenue Service auditor reported that her disabilities justified the expenses she claimed on her tax return and that although there were irregularities, she should be assessed no further tax. Bus drivers also adjusted the Broadway route and schedule to accommodate her "limited mobility."(17)
A certain exclusivity was most likely important for attracting and retaining upper-class customers. Anna's choice to seek an elite clientele probably also contributed to her self-imposed isolation from the larger Italian community in Providence. At a time when Italians suffered from substantial prejudice in the United States, Anna's rejection of Italian customers assured her upper-class clients that they would not have to contemplate sharing their dressmaker with socially inferior women, much less encountering them in person as fellow customers.(18) The young Italian American women who worked in the shop generally occupied the third-floor workroom and did not interact often with the clients who came for fittings or to transact other business. Anna's Italian workers did not always receive respect from the shop's patrons. Her niece and employee Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli recalls the often abrupt or indifferent treatment she received as a young girl while delivering dresses to clients. "They'd just about open the door and they'd chop your little hand off if you didn't get over there and take it out."
Anna's isolation from the local Italian community extended beyond her choice of clients. Other than her family and the women hired to work in her shop, she seems to have had only limited and rather formal contact with her fellow countryfolk in Providence. Her Italian American social interactions were with persons prominent at the state level in Rhode Island, such as lawyer Antonio Capotosto, who became a State Supreme Court judge, and Mariano Vervena, the president of Columbus Exchange Trust Company and Italian vice-consul for Rhode Island. Mrs. Vervena [fig. 70] is the only Italian customer listed in the Tirocchi client books: the Columbus Exchange Trust Company was an important source for Anna's business capital. As Mariano's wife, she was at the top of the social ranking of Italians in the state. The Vervenas were among the handful of Italians who merited mention in press accounts of the wedding of Anna's sister Laura. Included, also, was Capotosto, then an Assistant State Attorney General, who was best man to Louis J. Cella. According to Primrose Tirocchi, Anna's shop made the dress for the wedding of Judge Capotosto's daughter, although the transaction does not appear in the shop records. Primrose also reported that Anna rejected business from Italian women whose husbands had become prosperous in the United States because they lacked the background to appreciate her artistry and status. Perhaps as fellow immigrants they were more aware of Anna's humble origins and less inclined than her upper-class American clients to accept or be manipulated by her strategies for status enhancement.(19)
Anna did not have many native-born American customers of middling status; however, Isabel Brown (later Mrs. Edgar Brunschwig), personal secretary to one of Anna's most prominent clients - Mrs. Stuart (Martha L.) Aldrich - was one of the few. The close relationship that developed between Anna and Isabel is an exception that suggests the impact of social status in the business. The personal and friendly communications between the two women contrast sharply with the more formal business-style correspondence of Anna's elite customers. Anna was able to impress middle-class Americans with her cosmopolitanism. A real-estate agent from Narragansett, Mrs. S. A. Walsh, after a meeting with Anna, wrote: "It was a pleasure to listen to one who had really seen so much of the world and was big enough to take it in and be able to give others some idea of it all."(20)
In 1915, the Providence City Directory did not record any Italians in the neighborhood of Anna's new residence and shop at 514 Broadway, nor on the streets that intersected it. Directly to the west of it was Saint Mary's, a large, prosperous Irish Catholic parish. It was at this time that the household established a pattern of regularly attending services at the conveniently placed Saint Mary's, while still holding major family religious events at Holy Ghost on Federal Hill, the nearest Italian parish church. They also sent the children in their care to Saint Mary's for schooling. Frank's daughter Primrose Tirocchi graduated from St. Mary's, but when it came to her religious instruction and First Communion, her mother insisted that those Catholic essentials take place at Holy Ghost, where proper Italian traditions would be honored. Primrose recalled that her mother objected to the Irish methods for designating godparents at St. Mary's.
Although Saint Mary's often received larger donations from Anna, her Christmas list included the priests at both parishes. Records of Anna's charitable contributions date from the early years on Broadway. If anything, they suggest an even further remove from the local Italian community. She donated to general charities in the Providence area, such as the Girl Scouts, Red Cross, Easter Seal Campaign, Catholic Charities, Rhode Island Hospital Fund, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In some cases it seems likely that these were in part business-related, as her clients solicited them. Anna's gifts to the Girl Scouts and the Homeopathic Hospital supported favorite charities of two of her most important clients. When she gave to Italian causes, they were not local but national campaigns directed toward Italy, such as the Italian World War Veterans in the United States, a fund for families of war victims in Italy. She made donations to various religious orders and charities in Italy, as well as contributing substantially to the reconstruction of the church in Guarcino. There is no indication that she supported local feast-day celebrations or other Italian American community activities in Rhode Island.(21)
Laura's choice of husband also suggests the Tirocchi sisters' distancing of themselves from the large southern Italian working-class population of Providence and a rise to middle-class status. Louis J. Cella [fig. 71] was one of the younger children in a large family. His parents emigrated from northern Italy in the nineteenth century: his mother entered the U.S. in 1879 and gained her citizenship in 1886. Louis had graduated from Rhode Island College of Pharmacy and University of Vermont Medical School before obtaining his Rhode Island license to practice medicine in 1915. At that time, he had two unmarried sisters and a brother living with his mother in Providence. Nina, the older sister, was a dressmaker for a department store, ironically, an institution that would eventually doom the dressmaking trade. Nina and sister Ida soon moved to California, where they purchased property and wrote optimistically to Louis about the prospects for real estate investment in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Cella was active in Providence Republican politics, served in China as a medical missionary, received an honor from the Italian government, but tellingly was not active in local Italian American social organizations. There is no evidence, for example, that he was physician to any mutual-benefit societies, as was common practice for Italian American doctors. He was awarded a brief entry in Ubaldo Pesaturo's 1936 compendium of prominent individuals in Rhode Island Italian communities, but no Cellas or Tirocchis were listed in the 1940 edition.(22)
As her dressmaking business prospered, Anna accumulated a number of real-estate holdings. Realtors solicited her, which suggests that she was known as a prospective investor in commercial properties. The purchase of the Broadway mansion was followed by the acquisition of an existing duplex on nearby Bainbridge Avenue and a lot fronting on Tobey Street, where Anna had a duplex and garage built in 1917. Soon thereafter, she and Dr. Cella together bought a set of leaseholds at 97- 99 and 101- 09 North Main Street, at the foot of the East Side's College Hill just a short distance from Market Square [figs. 72- 73]. These were substantial properties that included an auto-repair garage, a diner/restaurant, and a multistory commercial block. Scattered records seem to indicate that Anna managed the financial side of this joint holding for herself and Dr. Cella. She paid the taxes and rent due to the City of Providence on the lots, arranged for insurance, and kept accounts of tenant rents and capital costs.(23)
In subsequent years, Anna acquired a vacation home at Narragansett Pier, which also produced rental income for her, and a property in Cranston on which stood an auto service station. In the 1930s, as the dress business declined, rents from these holdings produced a larger proportion of her income. She also lent money to others. In 1922, the Columbus Exchange Trust Company collected payments on a mortgage held by Anna and credited them to her collateral loan with the bank. Over a decade later, she called in a mortgage from Giuseppe Scungio of Simmonsville, Rhode Island, in order to meet her own mortgage commitments. Anna had investments in Italy as well. She purchased Italian bonds and lent money to businessmen Agnello De Meis and Giovanni Castagnacci of Guarcino. The Castagnacci family manufactured felt as well as hats of straw and wool there. These Italian investments proved problematic. She had difficulty obtaining repayment of the loans, and the bonds became worthless after World War II.(24)
It is not easy to reconstruct an exact account of Anna's finances. The shop records indicate that Anna maintained personal funds not included in the shop records, from which she occasionally made loans to the business. She also regularly borrowed sums from her family and two banks to even out the shop's cash flow. Anna's sister Eugenia made several substantial loans, and her brother Frank advanced the business $1,000 [$9,500 in 1999 dollars] on at least one occasion. In addition to family sources, Anna secured her business financing and mortgages from the Columbus Exchange Trust Company and the Union Trust. In 1931, Anna borrowed $3,345 [$32,500] for A. &L. Tirocchi. Two years later she notes further loans amounting to $2,425 [$28,800]. Drafts of income-tax statements in the 1920s, when the shop's gross sales were as high as $18,000 [$174,353] and rents and dividends would add nearly $5,000 [$42,322] more income, indicate that after expenses were subtracted, the bottom line was not large. She had ongoing interest payments on mortgages and business loans, as well as substantial incurred costs for merchandise and materials for the shop. The Broadway, Tobey, and Bainbridge properties were often mortgaged, and there was a heavy loan against the Park Avenue gas station in Cranston. Anna also may have taken out loans against the Narragansett house. Assuming the interest on her loans to have averaged six percent, her reported annual interest payments indicate that she was carrying debts that varied between $22,000 and $34,683 [$213,097 and $369,510]. As the effects of the Depression and the changing nature of the women's clothing industry eroded her business in the 1930s, she tried unsuccessfully to sell her vacation property, although she wrote to her real estate agent that she "never liked a home so well" and regretted that her current poor health prevented her from enjoying the cottage and the Narragansett community.(25)
INSERT TABLE OF Shop Income and Expenses here
The table above summarizes the data Anna used in completing some of her federal income tax returns. Several generalizations may be drawn. She did not keep systematic accounts and financial records that would allow her readily to summarize and monitor the performance of her various business activities. Erratic reporting of certain categories of expenses suggests that she concentrated on the assembly of sufficient "expenses" to eliminate any tax liability, rather than the production of a full accounting of her business and properties.(26) The sporadic notation of rental income probably results from her use of substantial depreciation figures to produce paper losses from her real-estate operations. The figures for the 1920s are those of rents received before any deductions. The absence of rents listed during the 1930s may have resulted from offsetting deductions that also went unreported. In 1943, she tallied $2,997 [$29,786] in rental income. Collections for December of that year produced $487. Annualized, these figures produce the yearly sum of $5,844 [$58,081], a number close to the amount of annual rents appearing on an undated calculation in the records for that time period. Unnoted deductions for depreciation, real estate taxes, and maintenance may account for the lower reported figure.
Anna's dressmaking business began a precipitous decline after 1932. Prior to that, her labor and materials expenses came close to offsetting the shop income. She also accrued sizable expenditures for "goods for resale," which resulted in large operating deficits. While she continued to purchase merchandise after 1932, a part of the shop's income in later years appears to have come from the sale of the extensive inventory, much of it purchased in the 1920s.
The inventory of Anna's estate, assembled after her death in 1947, valued the North Main Street leaseholds at $46,500 and Industrial Trust Company common stock at $1,140, yielding a total of $47,640 [$395,073]. Worthless assets included gold bonds of the defunct Philippine Railroad Company, 300 shares in the closed Columbus Exchange Trust Company, and $1,600 (the face value) in Kingdom of Italy gold bonds. There is no mention of the other real estate or any value placed on the business. This may indicate that there was no remaining value in the real estate after the mortgages were paid off. Anna also left $3,000 [$24,894] in life insurance, which was distributed among her sisters, Laura and Eugenia [fig. 74], and her brother Frank's children. After expenses, the remainder of the estate was placed in trust for the support of Laura. Laura's daughter Beatrice was the executrix and inherited the residual upon the death of her mother.(27)
In parlaying her dressmaking skill into a substantial business, and by virtue of her selective social contacts, Anna exemplified the qualities of middle-class immigrants in the United States. This group is representative of a very small portion of immigrant women. Their experiences have been less well studied than the lives of their working-class sisters in the early twentieth century. From the beginning, Anna's situation deviated from the common pattern. Her successful dressmaking business catered to the American-born upper and upper-middle classes. Few other immigrant businesses relied exclusively on nonimmigrant customers. Caterers, barbers, tailors, gardeners, contractors, and the like might eventually enjoy the patronage of the broader American community, but they usually began by serving their fellow immigrants. Her sister Eugenia's grocery store represents this more common form of entrepreneurship. Such businesses typically found their niche by serving the ethnic tastes of fellow immigrants. In 1909, the Providence Sunday Journal published a description of an Italian grocery in the Silver Lake enclave, comparing it to an old-fashioned country store.
There is an almost infinite variety of products not found anywhere else. The ceilings and walls present an interesting study for the student of domestic sciences. Long strings of silver-shelled garlic hang side by side with large, flat Italian hams, queer balls of meat minced with spices and pressed tightly into bags; bright peppers that look like trimmings for a christmas [sic] tree, festoons of dark sausage and bunches of things that have the appearance of earthen bottles of a wax in color [sic], the outside shell being of the consistency of granite, but really a fine brand of cheese. On the counters and shelves are great loaves of bread, vegetables, a variety of canned goods and packages of olive oil. In the center of the room is a pyramid of long boxes of macaroni.(28)
This account is very close to Primrose Tirocchi's description of her aunt Eugenia's store.
Perhaps the most important feature of Anna's life and career was her continued status as a single woman, which varied from the typical experience. Married immigrant women contributed to their families' financial well-being in a variety of ways. Some, like Anna's sister Eugenia Valcarenghi, operated groceries or other family businesses with their husbands. In Eugenia's case, the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit displayed by many of the Tirocchis and the fact that she ran the business alone for many years after her husband's untimely death suggest that she may have been the moving force behind the grocery all along. Eugenia's husband, moreover, had continued in Providence to pursue his former Italian employment as a house painter. In some years, Luigi is listed in the Providence City Directories as a grocer; in others, he is designated a painter or decorator. Eugenia also regularly took in boarders, a common means by which immigrant women contributed to their family income without working outside the home, and rented storefront space in her building to other businesses. Primrose Tirocchi remembered both her aunts Eugenia and Anna as powerful personalities in the family. Another Tirocchi woman who played an important role in a family business was Assunta, the wife of Tito's son Giuseppe, who for years merited a separate entry in the Providence City Directory as secretary for her husband's Ideal Concrete Products Company. Often, immigrant women supplemented the family income through labor accomplished at home. Mary Riccitelli worked in the Tirocchi shop for years, becoming one of its most skilled seamstresses. After her marriage to Panfilo Basilico, she left 514 Broadway but contributed to her new family as many Italian women did, by sewing at home.(29)
In remaining unmarried, Anna avoided any possibility of having to share authority or defer to a husband. The patriarchal family governance often attributed to Italian culture did not touch her. With Dr. Cella, her American-born brother-in-law, Anna invested in several commercial properties, and his practice was located at 514 Broadway. Anna managed the business aspects associated with their properties, such as paying taxes and arranging insurance. When it came to the shared expenses of the Broadway businesses (Dr. Cella's medical practice and the dress shop), Anna paid the bills and Louis reimbursed her for his share. On occasion he would deal with the shop's bookkeeper "so as not to disturb Miss Tirocchi."(30) The assumption that women generally should be subject to male authority was, of course, not limited to Italians. In 1920, the census enumerator first recorded the Broadway house as Anna's property, but then crossed out the entry and made Dr. Cella the household "head," giving him ownership of the property. Anna was designated as the "sister-in-law" in her own home.
Taken together, the Tirocchis illustrate a number of themes common to the immigrant experience of the time; yet, paradoxically, they also go beyond it as well. They migrated in search of greater economic opportunity, and the family displayed unusual spirit, talent, and business acumen. The men established businesses in construction and service industries, common areas for immigrant entrepreneurship, and the women sometimes played important roles in these endeavors, as well as earning money through work done at home. Anna represents an exception to the common experience for women and for immigrants in general. She remained single, independent, and the proprietor of a business that put her in intimate contact with upper- and upper-middle-class Americans. She and Laura cultivated a middle-class life, limiting their contacts with the larger Italian working class in Providence to members of their own family. Personal inclinations as well as business strategies undoubtedly prompted this social mobility. Anna made a number of trips back to Italy; but, if the surviving correspondence is any indication, she focused her attention on middle-class members of the family while there, the Del Signores and the priests Andrea and Ignazio Tirocchi, members of an Italian Franciscan religious order. Kin such as Salvatore's eldest son Federico Achille Tirocchi, pastor of the Roman Catholic parish of the Sacred Heart in the Natick section of West Warwick, Rhode Island, also maintained close ties with Anna [fig. 75].(31)
Family solidarity was a major asset in the Tirocchi successes in Providence. Anna entertained the families of her brother, sisters, and cousins at her Narragansett Pier home. Surviving cousins fondly recalled vacations there, as well as the silver dollars Anna distributed to the Tirocchi children. Mention has been made of the important loans family members made to Anna's business. Anna also contributed to the economic health of other family members. Frank's trucking business was the beneficiary of a number of sums from Anna over the years. She also paid off a mortgage he and Maria had contracted in 1917. Dr. Cella continued to maintain his office in Eugenia's Pocasset business block for a brief time after his marriage to Laura, and he relied on his brother-in-law Frank as agent in the management of his farm. Anna managed some financial tasks for her Uncle Tito in both Providence and Italy. She received a number of nephews and nieces into the Broadway house for periods of time and supported their schooling at the neighboring St. Mary's Parish School. She also supported their further education and professional aspirations. Laura's daughter Beatrice received the bulk of these contributions. Beatrice's brother, Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., believeshat Anna vetoed Laura's desire that her daughter Beatrice become a nun. Certainly Anna played a prominent role in Beatrice's education, paying for music lessons, supporting a correspondence course, and assuming the cost of her college tuition. Anna also took an interest in the education of male members of the younger generation of Tirocchis. She wrote to a cousin once removed, Carlo C. Tirocchi, while he was in military service, telling him that she had opened a savings account for him and was sure that he, like Angelo, another of the younger generation of Tirocchis under her wing, would have enough money to finish high school, college, and "get a nice profession." Carlo died while in the military, and Anna took responsibility for reporting the unhappy event in the Rhode Island records.(32)
Family support was central to the flourishing of other Tirocchi undertakings as well. Anthony Tirocchi observed that the family "came together and went apart" as they established businesses and made their way in Providence. They competed in the gravel, construction, and cement business, as well as in trucking. Mario Tirocchi entered the tire retreading business after seeing his sister Maria Tirocchi Furia's family open the Hartford Tire Company on the Hartford Avenue family property. His brother, Giuseppe, negotiated the political arrangements necessitated by wartime economic controls. Between the two firms, they serviced all the major tire retailers in the Providence area. Most of the male second-generation Tirocchis worked for their uncles' businesses, as well as for their fathers. Mario was a bachelor and something of a character. He managed to get the women of the family to wash and sterilize the bottles for his milk business. They complained that they worked at a nasty job while he was out driving around in the milk truck. His nephews recall that he managed to get them to do all the heavy work, while he traveled from job to job, supervising the work of others. When Salvatore's sons sold the Rhode Island Laundry, it went to their cousins, the grandchildren of Tito. As Tito's family acquired more heavy-duty construction equipment, including the first crane in Rhode Island, they shared it with the various Tirocchi businesses [fig. 76].
In the end, Anna Tirocchi, for all her independence and business initiative, was constrained by the traditions that shaped her early life. At a time when the women's clothing industry was undergoing revolutionary change, she persisted in an earlier artisan mode, relying on her fashion skills, artistic taste, and strong personality to resist the tide for some time. When she looked beyond dressmaking for investment opportunities, she chose the well trodden path of real estate. Like her sister dressmakers and milliners, she remained apart from the new industrial and commercial order.
INSERT Map of Tirocchis' Providence
INSERT geneology chart here
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 (hereafter referred to as Tirocchi Archive). 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.
Additional interviews were conducted by the author and are not included in the Tirocchi Archive. References to and quotations from the author's interviews are not footnoted. The following paragraph includes all such material and stands in place of footnoting.
Members of the Tirocchi family provided information and guidance that contributed substantially to this author's research and to this essay. The author is especially indebted to Anthony Tirocchi and his daugher Lisa, Vincenzo (Jimmy) Tirocchi, Louisa Furia D'Amore, and Joseph Tirocchi, who spent two evenings talking with me about their family history (April 10 and 12, 2000). Anthony and Lisa generously shared their extensive genealogical research, which was invaluable in my reconstruction of the Tirocchi family in Providence. Primrose Tirocchi graciously provided information and family photographs in an interview with the author (May 18, 1999) and subsequent telephone conversations.