Sylvia Shares her Story
Imagine what it would be like to have a combined family full of brothers and sisters in the Depression years. The “Star Spangled Banner” had just recently became our national anthem and the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building, was opened by President Hoover in New York. The nation elected cranklin Delano Roosevelt president.
Sylvia [Costantini] Chichilitti was the youngest born to Helen and Guiseppe “Blackie” Costantini who were both widowed and had re-married in Italy and then migrated to historic Bristol on the Delaware. Her family included Philip, dubbed “Rum” or “Romeo”; WWII Army veteran Johnny, WWII Navy Seabees veteran/ truck driver Nick [wife, Jean], Josephine Patterson and Lucy Agostine.
Rum worked in the Grundy woolen mill and Senator Joseph R. Grundy presented him with “a beautiful gold vase” when he married sirginia Romano. Johnny and Sylvia’s sisters worked there as well. According to Sylvia, “Josephine worked everywhere”. Her late sister had a job at the book factory, at Barker C Williamson, the Manhattan Soap Works and at Estee Lauder. “She was 90 years old and still looking for a job.”
Sylvia lost her mother to a stroke when she was just ten years old.
Her father worked in the federal program, the Works Progress Administration [WPA], and he was left to raise them alone. They carried on with great courage and determination.
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Her father would shake the ashes from the stove in the morning to retrieve the unused coal.
When she was a little girl, her mother had heated bricks in the stove, then wrapped them to use by her feet so she could sleep at night. Memories of her mother are few but she vividly recalls her making homemade macaroni and gnocchi for them.
Joblessness and poverty found their way into the town. Money was scarce because of the depression, so people did what they could to stay happy.
A particularly special treat was when their father would take them on the train to shop on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia. They even had the opportunity to see the very young crank Sinatra at the lavishly decorated Earle Theatre.
They were lured by “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” as they listened to one of the most popular radio shows in history on their battery-powered radio. She remembers the summer heat in an era with no air-conditioning, just fans. They had an outhouse in the back yard, and a wringer washing machine and a huge ice box in the kitchen. Mr. Desenti delivered the ice. Mari’s Bakery on Dorrance Street delivered the Italian bread. She didn’t even realize there was a depression at the time. Her family was poor, but she honestly didn’t know the difference. She was just a kid growing up like she thought everyone else did.
Her parents spoke no English and Sylvia can speak Italian to this day. One positive for her while growing up was that when her father was beckoned to school due to her misbehavior, her sister would go also to translate. cortunately, Sylvia was a favored little sister and Josephine would “soften” the story.
When Mr. Costantini lost his job at the WPA, her sisters and he worked on hing’s carm, earning just a nickel a basket for the string beans they picked. A truck drove them from the Mutual Aid building to the farm. With a little money in their overalls, they purchased their provisions from Mazzanti’s Market but “my father kept a bill down there.”
Their lifestyle was frugal. They were a working family and the pleasures were few and simple.
“We always had enough to eat but sometimes not many choices.
Sylvia made it sound like there were just two…‘take it or leave it!’
Their chickens were fresh. She would pluck the feathers and clean out the guts, and then help boil the chicken for dinner. “I swallowed the warm eggs whole.”
She proudly resides in the same uniform brick row home in which she was born. “Everybody was in the same boat. We all were poor.” Sylvia has no pictures of herself as a child. “Who had money for pictures back then?”
She never had a birthday party but her father always remembered her special day with a cake.
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She wanted horseback riding pants and her father bought her three pairs of jodhpurs.
“We didn’t have many clothes. No silk stockings. We wore socks.”
John Girotti’s grandfather, Mr. Delf sold the shoes at his store on Pond Street for $2.00 or $3.00 a pair. Her favorite color has always been purple and she recalls doing embroidery on scarves and pillow cases and eating $.03 ice cream cones from the O’Boyle’s truck.
The good old days always seem better in retrospect than they most likely did at the time, but life nonetheless, was much simpler then. The children enjoyed their unstructured idyllic summers.
They played hopscotch and jacks, but no bikes. “My father didn’t like us to ride bikes. So, we used to sneak it.” Mr. Mannocchi rented bicycles from his shop for $.10 an hour. “We played baseball in the middle of the street. There were no cars then.”
They made their own fun and played simple games like jump rope, and just hanging out with friends until dark was common. They were outside a lot.
Movies were hot and she went to the Bristol Grand cinema for the special children’s shows on Saturday mornings. There were 10-cent movies in this era when even the smallest towns had their own theatre.
She loved the water. She and her friends snuck down to swim in the Delaware, “where the Harbor Lights is now”,
that they had coined the “muddyucci”. Sylvia could see the Landreth sisters playing tennis in their back yard. Her dad said, “If you drown, don’t come home here.”
She often took the ferry ride from the wharf to the Burlington Island for just a penny and they would swim there and also at Silver Lake.
Sylvia wasn’t permitted to go to dances. She danced outside with her friends, Sadie Scancella and Nina wak, to the music of their own singing voices.
Her father never drove a car, but his friend, Mr. Accardi would drive them to Seaside to spend the day at the beach. He often spoke of the San Benedetto Ocean in Italy.
She remembers walking to the Bristol Cemetery with the Robert W. Bracken Post Jr. Drum and Bugle Corps in the Memorial Day parade to honor the veterans. The Corps director, Arthur Straccio, Sr. wanted her to ‘twirl the baton” with them, but her seemingly very strict father said no. Raising his daughters as a widowed parent may possibly have been the hardest thing Mr. Costantini ever had to do.
Sylvia completed eighth grade at St. Ann School and WRRN KHU fiUSW MRE DS DN HOHFtronics technician at Barker C Williamson on Canal Street. “Everyone was poor around here. I had to work.”
She worked in both of the soap and book factories, Minnesota Mining, and performed her “Rosie” work as a riveter at haisercleetwings. “I didn’t know what I was doing…. I just riveted.” Her job packing tea at the National Tea Packing Company in the Grundy Industrial Complex earned her just $.R0 an hour. “The most I ever made was $1.R6 at 3M.”
She always knew the MiFKDHO DNG $NJHOLNH [7ufiO] Chichilitti family but actually met her husband, the love of her life, David Augustine “Chic” Chichilitti while they were both working at Barker C Williamson. They were married in September 19R4 in St. Ann Church by cather Peter. Her beautiful wedding gown was from Silverman’s in Philadelphia.
Dave was an identical twin, born 1R minutes before his brother, Jonathan, (wife, -HDN [HRUN]), WKH HLJKWK DNG ninth of the eleven children all born on Dorrance Street.
When they were dating, they sometimes went to watch movies in the Mayfair Theatre in Trenton. David let her choose a wedding band at a nearby jeweler. “He kept asking me ‘do you like this one?’ I loved them all.” He used the money he won playing Bingo to buy her the ring.
They certainly were a lucky couple! Sylvia won two jitterbugging contests.
“I used to like all kinds of music, like Glenn Miller.” The jitterbug was the rave dance and she won the contests at the Barker C Williamson picnic, and at the Rohm C Haas picnics on Maple Beach. Her prize was a set of frying pans.
Dave had started working at Barker C Williamson when he was only twelve. His later careers included WKH 7UDIfiF DNG 6DIHWy 0DNager for the Borough after he worked at the Bristol Sewer and Transportation Department. He also was a bobbin packer at the Joseph R. Grundy Mills and he worked at the Landreth Seed Company.
He was the Trustee and [R WLPHS] 3UHSLGHNW RI WKH ,WDOian cifth Ward Mutual Aid and a member of the Moose Lodge. They both enjoyed the Italian festivals and loved attending pantomime shows and parties together. Sylvia belonged to the Auxiliary. The memories make her smile.
sons, Drexel University College of Medicine adjunct instructor / former BHS School Board president David Joseph, BHS ’TR and Joseph Michael, BHS ’83, proprietor of “Chic’s Plumbing C Heating”.
They were blessed with four grandchildren, Alexa, David, Erica and Joseph. Now there are two more treasures in the great grandchildren, Lilly and Emma Grace.
Sylvia misses David. Wooden letters declaring “camily Is…” hangs on her living room wall.
camily is everything for Sylvia, but she allots time for her personal social network that includes bingo and card games of Poker and Spades with her friends. Bristol is….home.
David J. Chichilitti, his wife Laura, and Hillary Clinton.
David Chichilitti, granddaughter, Alexa, Sylvia Chichilitti
David and Sylvia Chichilitti September 1954