The page two headline of the local news section in the newspaper, La Prealpina from the province of Varese, announced: “The Fratelli Rossi Company quits. It is the oldest pipe factory”, with the subheading: “Barasso’s company in dire financial distress calls for agreement with creditors”. The lead stated: “Founded in 1886, its history is a mixture of legend and industrial pioneering – The owners of the company are proposing the transfer of their assets to their creditors – Now the court must decide – Over a billion lire in the red also determined by the loss of US market clients and consequent reduction of payments”. This is how a story that had lasted twenty years bitterly concluded in 1984.
The oldest known record, housed in the Milan Chamber of Commerce, dates back to 22nd November 1898. “We, the undersigned Fratelli Rossi Company, resident in Milan, at Via Mortara 5, pipe factory owners, request to be entered in the Business Register …”. The request is handwritten and signed “Fratelli Rossi”. However, who actually wrote it? A note, again handwritten, makes everything clear: “Managing partner Ferdinando Rossi signing for Fratelli Rossi”.
The document is interesting for its stamps below the signature. The first, in six lines: “Factory for pipes / in fine briar and wood/ owned by / Fratelli Rossi / Milan / Via Mortara No.5”. The second, in one long line placed just below the first one: “Factories in Milan and Barasso (Varese)”. Even more interesting is the attached notarial deed, also handwritten in “chancery” calligraphy that was commonly used for official documents, dated February 10th, but refers to a previous deed drawn up on January 19th,1888 by the same notary, Dr. Leone Donadoni.
From a reading of the document, it is evident that: 1) in 1888 in Milan a limited partnership company called “Giulio Visconti and Co.” was established between Giulio Caremi, son of the late Giulio and Carlo Rossi, son of Giuseppe, based in Milan, Via Mortara No.5 “for the Manufacture and Sales of pipes in briar and other types of wood and for the representation and sale on behalf of third parties of the objects related to such article and industry”. 2) The general managing partner (working partner) was Giulio Caremi. Carlo Rossi, a lawyer, was the limited partner or the person who invested a certain amount of capital (in this case) and did not participate actively in the company’s management. 3) Ferdinando Rossi, Carlo’s brother, immediately or later became the company’s authorized representative. 4) In 1890, as Giulio Caremi intended to withdraw from the company, it was Ferdinando Rossi who stepped in and became managing partner. 5) Giulio Caremi was given back his capital share that he had previously invested, but only partly in cash: the rest was paid in “furniture and essential equipment for manufacturing pipes”. 6) The Company’s name became “Fratelli Rossi” and it was still based in Milan, Via Mortara 5.
Therefore, it seems that the Rossi company started off life in Milan with another name. However, it seems unlikely that the company was established earlier in 1888, as one only has to browse through the Savallo Milanese business directory of that year to find under the entry ‘pipes’ “Visconti Giulio and C. Via Mortara 5 – First Manufacturer of briar pipes”. However, the directory necessarily publishes information from the previous year. Nevertheless, norms governing companies at that time were rather weak and it is highly likely that Carlo Rossi and Giulio Caremi (as well as Ferdinando, of course) had started their business even two years before the notarial deed. Thus, it can be said that the Fratelli Rossi company was established in 1886, considering the name Visconti the first step in the course of its history, as asserted in La Prealpina newspaper and in other documents.
The two Rossi brothers were born in Broni, probably of a wealthy family. In 1890 Carlo, the elder brother, was already working and lived in Voghera: more than being interested in manufacturing in Milan, he seemed to prefer to fund his brother. As for Giulio Caremi, it is only known that in the 1890 deed he is referred to as an ‘industrialist’ and that he recovered part of his shares in equipment. Thus, he intended to continue in the world of pipes, to which it is likely that he belonged before meeting Carlo Rossi, who precisely for this reason had chosen him as working partner. Let us now go back to Ferdinando, the real protagonist of this story.
It is said that he was highly enterprising, from his youth used to going back and forth between the artisans who produced pipes, and the family emporium where the pipes were sold. In the area of Milan, in the late 1870s, there was a solid tradition of pipes made of Meerschaum, but the pipes were largely made of clay, boxwood or other types of wood. Founded in 1873, the Maurizio Pisetsky company used briar following the example of the French. Almost everyone smoked a pipe at that time, being the most economical and popular device for smoking. It is likely that the twenty-year-old Ferdinando moved in these circles in 1876, even prior to the partnership with Caremi, relying on a few tobacco shops in business at that time. As regards the family emporium, the only information we have is of a tobacconist in Via San Vito in the name of a Carlo Rossi who appears in the 1888 Savallo directory. Thus, it existed at least in 1887, like the Visconti Company. In the 1889 directory (1888) the shop transferred to Via Pesce, but in the 1890 edition (1889) it no longer appears. The Rossi brothers, however, managed representation and trade at the head office in Via Mortara at least from 1886.
In 1886, in the presumed early days of the Visconti company, Ferdinando was thirty years old, was extremely keen and had good skills which he applied as authorised representative. In the years leading up to 1890 he acquired all the necessary experience and skills, through closely observing Caremi’s business, so as to take over from him. Already at that time his talents, but above his character, were emerging, well summarised in the 1984 article in the Prealpina newspaper: “gifted with a flair for business, but also decisive and rapid… [as] an industrialist in his early years …”. Not only was he proficient in commercial dealings, but he also swiftly made himself familiar with manufacturing processes and the machinery for production. This late nineteenth-century man was imbued with the myth of progress: every technological innovation interested him, above all if it could be applied to his business.
Travelling in search of suppliers for his business, he went as far as mythical Saint-Claude, the undisputed home of briar pipes at that time. It is said by some that he went in 1880, or perhaps a few years later, when Giulio Visconti and Co. already existed. In the face of such advanced pipe production, it was then that he realised he could apply the same manufacturing techniques in Italy.
Barasso was a small lakeside village, west of Varese. Molina, a small hamlet situated higher up, was named after some ancient water wheels driven by a torrent (Tinella torrent) that was fed by a spring. Apart from the spring, there was nothing there yet except an abandoned, small, ancient abbey and a spinning mill. Here in 1886 (although some say a few years earlier), the Rossi brothers bought some real estate that included the spring and spinning mill. This was the first of many acquisitions. They would gradually expand to cover an extensive flat area. The year 1886 is the official year of the company’s foundation, or else the possible year for the establishment of the Visconti company, based in Milan. What were the Rossi brothers doing in Barasso at that time? It is said that they went on holiday there, but in any case it was an ideal location that was far from the city, with no problems of space, near the railway, and with cheap labour. Was Giulio Caremi involved in all these plans? The Rossi brothers may have already started acting on their own, foreseeing future changes in the limited partnership. Or else Caremi was aware of the plans but faced with the brothers’ ambitious projects that would involve further investments, at a certain point preferred to hand over his share of the company.
Back to Milan: the headquarters remained in Via Mortara until 1899 (Savallo Directory 1900); then it transferred to Piazza Genova (Savallo Directory 1901), probably no longer a factory but a shop or representative office. If, as claimed, work began in Molina in 1897 (the stamp “Factories in Milan and Barasso (Varese)” appeared in 1898), it is likely that the closure of the Milanese factory took place in 1899 when the new factory in Barasso was already running. The limited family partnership went ahead, changing partners and shares with each generation of the Rossi family.
In Via Mortara 5, a certain number of worker-artisans were recruited with Caremi’s capital, (a dozen, or maybe thirty) that used rudimental equipment. However, once the factory was running, production was sufficient to cover the smokers’ market in Northern Italy. In 1892 in South America, the land of Italian immigrants, the first international contract was signed. Ferdinando Rossi was already thinking of improving the machinery at that time, which eventually partly went to Caremi and the rest to Molina. Together with this, Ferdinando persuaded skilled workers to move with the machinery, promising them a job and housing at the new site, as well as paying for their transfer. However, Ferdinando was highly ambitious. As the new lakeside factory gradually expanded, incorporating the former spinning mill and a few new buildings, the tools, machinery and artisanal work needed to become increasingly efficient. This was based on the French model of Saint-Claude, but it was unthinkable that they could travel there and buy everything that was necessary. Unfortunately, the French, being secretive about their work and their excellence, would reveal nothing. However, Ferdinando was not one to give up at the first obstacle and a few machines somehow arrived in Italy, together with a worker and his family who had worked in France and knew how to operate them. Ferdinando’s unscrupulous methods did not stop at that: it is said that he gave some ‘contributions’ to Italian workers in Saint-Claude in exchange for keeping him up to date on the technological progress there. Over time he gradually managed to fine-tune the French machines themselves. For example, he increased the ratio of reproduction in the famous 1:1 (non era 1:0.25?) pantograph used in Saint-Claude for the pipe-duplicates/reproduction? per le pipe-caricatura, and patented it.
At first the machines were operated by hand, and in the early stages in Molina they were run by turbines driven by channelled water that came from the spring. However, in Italy at the turn of the century a new type of energy was gradually beginning to take hold: how could this industrialist in love with progress ignore it? Thus, accounts relate that he used the same channelled water to drive an electrical generator, and then later sought a different solution to meet the various growing demands of the company.
Nearby was the North Milan station on the Como-Varese-Laveno line, which is where the machine parts arrived. They were then transported by cart and assembled in a yard. Once the complex assembly was completed, the machine was installed in a new building. This is how the Fratelli Rossi’s small thermoelectric plant originated: the gas produced by the incomplete combustion of processing by-products in the boiler powered an engine that was connected to the generator with belt and pulleys. This new power revolutionised the factory, driving the machinery and lighting the premises, and even following the later introduction of electricity the internal plant continued to provide energy for many years.
Ferdinando’s constant commitment was crucial in order to launch his product. One effective means at that time was to display products at the Great Expositions. In the Paris 1900 Exposition he was awarded a gold medal. In Milan in 1906, the Fratelli Rossi company was awarded a Diploma of Honour, installing in the vast Gallery of Work a small workshop complete with machinery and labour that displayed the complete production cycle. The visitors were highly interested, as they could observe how a pipe was created, from the initial rough shapes to the final polishing. After that, the company won further diplomas and medals at other exhibitions. However, to find potential buyers it was also necessary to travel around the world. From the first international contract signed in 1892, many others would follow within Europe and outside of Europe. The factory was expanding: at the turn of the century there were already a hundred and twenty employees, working ten hours a day and six days a week. The key to the Rossi Company’s success was to offer a decent mass product at a competitive price, pursuing a shrewd cost policy and meticulous, rational work organisation. The products were only sold in bulk with special attention paid to export. In most cases the pipes were marked with the brand or brands requested by the client.
Leonida, Ferdinando’s son, born in Milan in 1886, had grown up surrounded by pipes. He already had extensive experience when he took over the company following the death of his father in 1918. He found himself at thirty-two managing a thriving factory and he could have been happy to stay that way. However, he had the same entrepreneurial spirit that had driven his father. That gem of a factory could be further expanded and made even more efficient, more complete, especially in view of the fact that during these years under new management there arose a particularly thorny problem concerning Saint-Claude, where the Rossi Company bought ebonite mouthpieces. The local manufacturers were starting to be concerned about the flourishing Italian company that was gradually taking over the markets, and so the supplier of mouthpieces was persuaded to reduce the delivery of their products to the Italian competitors. Thus, in Molina although various alternatives were sought to replace the material, they soon realised that the only solution was to make the mouthpieces themselves. There followed several years of totally or partially unsuccessful trial runs, investment in terms of time, money, research and imagination until finally in 1922, a new department was able to produce the company’s own ebonite mouthpieces. It was the boilers that were powered by the processing by-products that produced the steam for autoclaves for the process of vulcanisation.
These were the years of great expansion in which the factory visibly grew. Celebrating fifty years in 1936, the director made a speech, the employees gave a medal to Leonida and they all posed for a group photo under the office building. A photograph album that was published for this occasion displays the extent and the optimisation of the factory more than words can describe: following in his father’s footsteps and completing his work, Leonida had created a complete manufacturing cycle in his factory using criteria at least partly inspired by the production line. From the storage of the briar to delivery, almost all production took place within the factory, including small metal parts and packing cases. However, Leonida, who was an enlightened businessman, had also built in Molina a small complex of houses for some of his employees, who also had access to a refectory and medication room in the factory. The Casa del Sole, which was inaugurated in 1938 on a high hill was designed for the employee’s children, but the children in Barasso and Luvinate could also stay there. This was a sun therapy summer camp, built in memory of Rossi’s daughter, Marisa, who died of typhus at the age of ten. It is said that during the war the employees could also take food rations for their families from the refectory, either for free or at a reduced price.
The 1930s were the best years for the factory, with a high volume of exports especially in Europe and America, but also in other parts of the world. Over fifty-thousand pipes a day were produced and the workforce numbered eight hundred people. Not even the ‘sanctions’ that were imposed on Italy in 1935 stopped the Rossi Company, as they managed to get round this by creating a branch in Agno, in the Ticino Canton in Switzerland where the company continued to sell their products to clients abroad who would normally be excluded. It was only a small workshop that produced a limited number of products, but it was useful as a front using ‘Foreign made’ and ‘Made in Switzerland’ brands. During the War, as the American clients had disappeared, they tried to compensate by finding German clients. Nevertheless, the production numbers of a few years earlier were but a faint memory.
In 1947 the sixty-one-year-old Leonida decided to introduce his son, Ferdinando, into the business, who was twenty-nine and had himself grown up surrounded by pipes but may have been less closely connected to that world. The new limited partnership “Fratelli Rossi of F. Rossi” (where ‘F.’ stood for Ferdinando) had Leonida as limited partner, with a capital share of three hundred thousand Lire. The two main company managing directors, both with a share of five thousand Lire, were also limited partners. Ferdinando, with a capital of one hundred thousand, was the managing partner, or working partner. Thus, Leonida still retained control, and Ferdinando was supported by two experienced people. One month later, a new notarial deed appointed one of the two managing partners authorised representative, granting him all powers of ordinary administration. A further change occurred in 1956, when the capital rose from five hundred thousand Lire to ten million, and the lesser partners left. All the disbursement was borne by Ferdinando, who took over. Leonida died at seventy-nine in 1965. From that time the company was in the hands of Ferdinando and his wife, with variations in share and capital.
After the war, the company continued with two hundred employees, producing ten thousand pipes a day that were exported to the USA, South America, and Germany. However, over time small, worrying signs revealed a change: cigarettes, which had become cheaper and were quicker to light up and smoke, were gradually becoming the primary mass smoking device. At the same time, the pipe market was declining, kept going by pipe enthusiasts, whose tastes and requirements would gradually become more refined. The splendid assembly line of five thousand pipes a day had not been imagined, developed and built for these people.
The Rossi company gradually realised this and sought to adapt to this new situation by updating mentality, machinery and methods, enhancing the Company brand that had long been neglected. The growing difficulties led to a series of capital injections: from five hundred thousand Lire in 1947 to ten million in 1956, twelve million in 1969, one hundred million in 1974 and two hundred and fifty in 1980. Meanwhile, smaller, more up-to-date, tougher competitors were emerging, with strong artisanal inclinations, the important clients were disappearing, and several employees sought jobs elsewhere. Only thirty workers and employees remained, the last foreign clients staying in South America, as in the beginning, and reluctantly, the Fratelli Rossi of F. Rossi simply gave up.
It is claimed that Ferdinando was largely responsible for all this, as he had other interests and so tended to delegate; not everyone had played fair with him and the company. However, in hindsight, the task of dealing with a dramatic change acting in such a difficult situation would have been difficult even for his father and grandfather. It was certainly too much for him.
From 1984 to 1985 onwards, the factory fell into disuse. The machinery and material were gradually sold to people of the same profession. The limited partnership company “Fratelli Rossi of F. Rossi” remained standing until 1991, when it was finally dissolved before a notary. The buildings in Molina are still standing, occupied by several companies. The same for the houses of the small ‘workman’s village’, today belonging to private owners. A part of the spring water is pumped to irrigate the nearby golf course and powers the aqueduct in Varese. The Casa del Sole Marisa Rossi, incorporated into the Campo dei Fiori Park in Varese, has been managed by Barasso Municipality since 1986. Having been adapted to modern needs while respecting the original architecture, it is used for public and private events. Important Rossi memorabilia, including the entire collection of pipes on display, are exhibited at the Pipe Museum in Gavirate.
The Fratelli Rossi Company had a great impact on Barasso and the surrounding areas. They gave work to thousands of people: employees and external artisans that carried out specific types of work, especially as regards the finish. They disseminated the culture of pipe manufacturing through those that down the years became self-employed after having learnt their profession in the factory that was the “mother of many others”. In Barasso and nearby there are quite a few important businesses where the noble tradition of fashioning pipes is still carried on today.
Special thanks to:
Chamber of Commerce in Milan
Chamber of Commerce in Varese
Pipe Museum in Gavirate
Luigi (Gigi) Crugnola