Ironically, the smallest state in the nation (at only 1,544 square miles) has the longest official name: the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Settled by English colonists seeking religious freedom, beginning with Roger Williams who fled Massachusetts in 1636, Rhode Island can claim the oldest Baptist church and oldest synagogue in the U.S., as well as the highest percentage of Catholics in the nation at 54%.
Too small for large-scale agriculture, forestry or mining, Rhode Island's economy has historically relied on manufacturing and trade since the 1700s. The state boasts more than 1,000 jewelry manufacturers, and other leading products include silverware, boats, chemicals, electronics and ocean technology. The state is home to pharmacy giant CVS and toy behemoth Hasbro, whose beloved Mr. Potato Head graces a fundraising license plate.
Other important industries include health services as well as financial services, with major companies like Citizens Bank and Fidelity headquartered in the Providence metro area. Employing more than 50,000 people, tourism is also significant to the Rhode Island economy, as is education, thanks to the state’s more than 12 colleges and universities. They include the Ivy League institution Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). With more higher education offerings within an hour drive than any other location, Rhode Island ranks 13th in the U.S. for residents with bachelor’s degrees (over 30%) and 10th for graduate degrees (over 11%).
In addition to diversifying its own economy, Rhode Island has also benefitted from its economically robust neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut, as the state has recruited many businesses to relocate, bringing employees pleased to find more affordable real estate, a milder climate (relative to New England) and cosmopolitan culture of its resurgent capital, Providence. In turn, many residents commute to jobs in Massachusetts or Connecticut but live in the Ocean State, so-named because no point in this tiny state with 40 miles of coastline is more than a 30-minute drive from the sea.
With more than a million people, Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state in the U.S. after New Jersey. Approximately 81% of residents are white, 12% are Hispanic and 6% are black. Leading ethnicities in the state include Italian (14%), Irish (12%), Portuguese (7%) and French (7%), with foreign-born individuals comprising 13% of the population.
The Rhode Island housing market offers something for any lifestyle, ranging from single-family homes in Colonial and Victorian styles to condominium communities and apartments. The median home value in 2015 was $251,757 while the median household income was $56,361. The most expensive zip code in the state? That would be the exclusive community of New Shoreham on Block Island, with a median home value just over a million dollars.
Rhode Island's popularity among residents of neighboring states is nothing new. Historic Newport, situated on Aquidneck Island in beautiful Narragansett Bay, is famed for its stately mansions built in the 1800s as “summer cottages” by the Vanderbilts, Astors and other wealthy industrialist families of the Northeast. The summer sophistication of Newport is also attributable to its two acclaimed musical gatherings held every August, the Jazz Festival and the Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan notoriously shocked the audience in 1965 by performing on an electric guitar. In 2015, the median home value in Newport was $395,370.
In more surprising aspects of the culture, Rhode Island has a long history of organized crime: the Patriarca family has run its New England enterprise from Providence since the 1950s. In a lighter vein, Providence has the most per capita donut shops in the U.S., including more than 50 Dunkin Donuts locations throughout the city - no wonder the Dunkin Donuts Arena is in downtown Providence. And finally, as the perfect companion to a donut, the state's official drink since 1993 is coffee milk, a mixture of milk with caffeinated coffee-flavored syrup that is served in many public schools. The most popular brands include Autocrat Syrup and Eclipse.