The year was 1963.
President John F. Kennedy was in the White House, until that infamous and tragic visit to Dallas.
The Beatles burst onto the U.S. music scene, a first-class postage stamp cost five cents, and a young man from the town of Sao Vicent in San Miguel, Azores, put $50 in his pocket, neatly packed the two suits that he made by hand into a suitcase and headed for a better life in America.
At 21 years old, the town’s only tailor had to write that he was a “farmer” on his official papers because in those days, the Portuguese government didn’t look kindly on people with trades leaving the country.
Jose M. Silva, however, would not be detained.
He lined up a job at Pearson Yachts in Bristol (satisfying the requirement for a waiting job) and made the voyage to his new job and new life.
So, Sao Vicent’s first (and last) tailor, with four years of private business as a tailor on his resume, would be a shipbuilder, using his knowledge to deal with fiberglass and other fabrics instead of fine cloth.
“Joe” would work at Pearson for a few months at the starting wage of $1.25 and hour, until he was offered a better position at American Tourister, sewing baggage.
Months later, an opportunity would arise at the popular clothing chain – Robert Hall.
The owners wanted to utilize Joe’s talents so badly that they waited three months until he could get his driver’s license and car to make the journey to Post Road in Warwick.
He would be the only tailor in the Post Road store and work there for 10 years.
He loved working at Robert Hall, and became a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (members of the AFL-CIO).
After management wanted to reduce his hours to give them to a more senior tailor at another store, Joe decided to take his skills to other stores in Providence, landing a position at Harvey Kay’s group of stores: Squire, Gentry and Prep & Squire, where he would remain until the stores closed some 19 years later, at which time he moved to the popular “Gian” store owned by Tom Altieri, with locations in Providence, Garden City and Warwick.
Today, he works at Joseph David Big & Tall, 1590 Post Road in Warwick, helps his old friend Sheldon at Tolchinsky Furs, and also works out of his home for private customers.
Asked about the changes in his industry, Joe had no hesitation and didn’t mince words. “It’s a dying trade,” he said.
He continued: “When I came here all the tailors were either from Italy or Greece. Every year we had a reunion and everyone spoke Italian. There were a lot of us. Every store had tailors, some even had four working full time! Now you can’t find a tailor.”
The craft was passed on from one generation to the next, he said.
“It was a trade passed on from family to family. I learned from my mother in the early ’60s, who was a seamstress for men’s clothing. All clothes in Portugal then were hand-made, from shirts to suits.”
He added: “Sadly, there are very few tailors left in Rhode Island. Some stores send their tailoring needs back to the factory, and some have seamstresses that can shorten pants and sleeves and do minor alterations, but the big jobs are still done by the remaining tailors.”
Asked about the future of the craft, he said, “Who knows?”
One thing is for certain.
The kid from Portugal has certainly built up a customer base of “who’s who” in Rhode Island, with people ranging from boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard to bishops, judges, politicians and business leaders traveling to his home on West Shore Road in Warwick to get the job done right.
But for Joe Silva, it has always been, and is still, about family.
Family that started his lifelong trade, and his family in the U.S. that he is so proud of, starting with wife, Christine (Apice), children Joseph (and wife Carol) and Steven, grandson Joe Brian, who is a student at Brown University studying to be a doctor, and granddaughter Carolynn, who is a chemical engineer.
The new generation of his family will never experience what it was like for their grandfather to come to America without speaking a word of English and looking to start a business that he learned with a clothes-iron heated with charcoal (there was no electricity) and using old-style tools of the trade.
But it’s a good bet that they have the same kind of work ethic.