In the 19th and 20th centuries Slovenian women flocked to Trieste to work as maidservants and later as housemaids.
In the 19th century, Trieste was the most important port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Until the outbreak of World War I, it was a multicultural and economically flourishing city, which attracted numerous Slovenian immigrants from its immediate hinterland and the nearby Austrian provinces, including Carniola. A lot of them were women, who often took up work as maidservants with the Trieste families and lived in their homes. Most of them left for Trieste when they were young, for a limited period of time, and then returned home to marry. During times of scarcity, their income helped sustain their families in the country. At the same time, they earned enough money for their dowry.
Not all young women chose to follow this common life path. Some maids met their life partners in the city, settled, and found work there, perhaps in one of the many Trieste factories. Some of them remained single and continued to work as maidservants. Others, still, were exposed to extreme abuse on the part of their employers and had to resort to prostitution as a way out of their predicament.
Both church and lay organisations attempted to address the problem of “moral dereliction” of Slovenian maidservants and their general impoverishment. It was not uncommon to see a nun waiting for a young girl at the Trieste train station to shield her from lechers and other urban dangers before she entered service. The Catholic Marian society of Trieste joined the efforts to protect them. In 1898 Maria Skrinjar, née Manfreda (1857–1931), a national and social worker, established the first lay women’s charity, the Institute of Saint Nicholas, which operated as a refuge for Slovenian maidservants.
Slovenian maidservants overcame cultural, ethnic, and state borders to provide for their families.
World War I put an end to these lively endeavours. Borders established after the war, between the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and the Kingdom of Italy, cut off Trieste and its surroundings from the Slovenian hinterland. Maidservants from Carniola now turned to Zagreb or Belgrade, while many women from the Primorska region looked to the cities of Northern Italy, such as Milan and Turin, and further afield, to Genoa and Naples. However, young women from the immediate Trieste hinterland – Karst, Vipava Valley, the Brda Hills, Posočje region, and Istria – kept coming to Trieste. The Institute of Saint Nicholas closed due to lack of financial means, whereas the Marian society persisted throughout Fascism; during that time, Slovenian maidservants were often the target of racist abuse by the authorities and subject to ill will of their employers.
After World War II, a border once again separated Trieste from its immediate vicinity; whereas many Slovenian women from the border region between Slovenia and Italy still came to the city to work as housemaids, this time it was different. They no longer lived with their employers. They would drive to Trieste from Yugoslavia several times a week in cars of their own or, more often, ride the bus. As the years went by, their age structure also changed significantly – young women were replaced with middle-aged married women and pensioners. Due to different living standards in the two countries and their participation in the grey economy, they made good money in Trieste.
During the outbreak of the Slovenian War of Independence in 1991, it became clear just how dependent the citizens of Trieste were on Slovenian and Croatian domestic workers. Once the borders closed and the Trieste families found themselves stranded without their indispensable housemaids, their significance briefly became the highlight of national Italian newspapers.
Over the last decades, new migration flows from former Yugoslavia and Eastern European and African countries significantly increased the availability of domestic help. However, Slovenian women remain sought after by the Trieste families, no doubt also because of the long tradition described above.
A former meeting place of Slovenian maidservants, Ponte Rosso (“the red bridge”) is a synonym for the once bustling Trieste market, a shopping mecca selling goods which were scarce in socialism: Rifle jeans, coffee, the first vinyl records, Rama margarine, washing detergent, chocolate, and rice. The bridge offers picturesque vistas of numerous cafes next to the channel, which spans from the city centre on one side (edged by the Neoclassical Church of St. Anthony) towards the open sea on the other. The location is accessible to people with limited mobility.