Take these giant stuffies … and go back to the drawing board please

How to market R.I. to tourists? Let’s be real about who we really are.

September 4, 2023 5:00 am

Behold the giant stuffie installation with bottle of hot sauce and embedded TV monitor playing a video of the stuffie being made by artisans at Symmetry International, a division of Lance Industries in Lincoln. (Screenshot from Commerce Rhode Island video)

Maybe I am in the minority, but I cannot reconcile gigantic fake stuffie statues with my vision of Rhode Island. 

The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation announced the installation of the giant stuffie over Labor Day weekend in Detroit with plans for it to eventually visit “flight markets” in Atlanta, Baltimore and Los Angeles through the end of the year.and later.

I like stuffies. I like clam cakes and chowder at Iggy’s on Oakland Beach, and the double lobster rolls at Easton’s Beach in the summer. I also really like Allie’s Donuts, and the various versions of poutine that can be found in Woonsocket and other points north. I even love arguing with other Rhode Islanders about which versions of all of these foods are the best. None of these are the reason that my family made this amazing state our home 30 years ago. 

Rhode Island has many resources that are distinctly attractive both to tourism and those looking for a place to settle, work and live. We have natural beauty: a shoreline which is a unique combination of sandy beaches and rocky outcrops, and which provides whatever version of ocean access you desire. There are waves and shallows, kayaking and yacht races, fishing, shell-fishing, and seal-watching. The Gulf stream will flow up from the south and approach the mouth of Narragansett Bay, with the result that the ocean is often comfortable for swimming until Halloween. I have seen tropical clown fish swimming along the rope lines at Gooseberry Beach in the height of summer. 

We have an incredible history that transcends local interest. American religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, significant Revolutionary War events including the first vessels of the Continental Navy, and the origins of the Industrial Revolution in America all happened here. The development of a uniquely American approach to fashion grew in Gilded Age Newport, and immigration from all over the world defined Rhode Island’s culture and influenced the nation. It still does. 

Many places have history, but Rhode Island’s history is particularly accessible to visitors because so much of the built environment survives and continues to be used for its original intent.

Examining the dark side of our history also has value to even the casual visitor. The earliest settlers, following Roger Williams, came with a commitment to respect the original inhabitants of the land they sought to join. This did not hold, and it is well worth thinking about why. Rhode Island struggled with the morality of enslaving others from its earliest days and regularly fell on the wrong side of the struggle. Exploring this topic, and how the abolition movement grew here, led mostly by Black Americans a generation or less removed from slavery, has great importance. 

The Valentine Whitman House in Lincoln The Valentine Whitman House (c.1696), located on Great Road in Lincoln, is one of the few remaining “Stone Enders” in Rhode Island. (Left, courtesy of the Providence Public Library. Right Chris Whirlow)

Many places have history, but Rhode Island’s history is particularly accessible to visitors because so much of the built environment survives and continues to be used for its original intent. Mansions that rival Europe and ancient stone enders are still homes, and 200-year-old businesses still have customers. In addition, 17th century stone towers and Indigenous pictographs can be found. All of this leaves a legacy; Rhode Island’s culture today is creative, quirky and inspiring. 

And yes, we are small. That’s part of our charm. But we, as Rhode Islanders, seem determined to downplay our most valuable assets and focus instead on a self-deprecating, diminished sense of who we are. We like to focus on our quirkiness, and on the lowest common denominator for our appeal. The “Birthplace of Fun,” “Fun-sized,” Mr. Potato Head and now gigantic (and a little scary) stuffies. It almost does not matter why this is.

It is time to change the narrative. Come here to learn, to reconnect with the American story, and to be inspired by nature. It is all here, and you have always been welcome. 


Correction: Rhode Island Commerce released more details on the locations of the flight markets where a stuffie statue will appear on Tuesday, saying they will not be in airports but in locations in “flight markets.” A second stuffie will appear at The Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

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Ruth S. Taylor
Ruth S. Taylor

Ruth S. Taylor retired at the end of 2022 after 16 years as executive director of the Newport Historical Society. She now serves as a consultant working to improve the governance of nonprofit organizations. She also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.