One of Pawtucket’s best-known attractions, the Potter & Johnston Manufacturing Company offers an interesting juxtaposition as late 19th century industrialism meets a mid-20th century toy icon. The giant Mr. Potato Head statue that greets visitors outside the old Potter & Johnston Manufacturing Company which is now part of the headquarters of the Hasbro company. While most tourists and passers-by are familiar with the famous toy, few are aware of the history that lies behind those doors.
The Potter-Johnston manufacturing company was founded by
Scottish immigrant James C. Potter. Mr. Potter, who had been a
mechanical engineer in Glasgow prior to emigrating, arrived in Pawtucket in
1887 and shortly thereafter he started the Potter and Atherton Machine Company. In
1893 he organized the Howard & Bullough American Machine Company, and, in
partnership with John Johnston, the Potter & Johnston Machine Company which
incorporated in 1899. Potter and Johnson soon grew to be Pawtucket’s
largest machinery plant. This plant at 1012 Newport Avenue grew to sprawling ten acres.
Mr. Potter, also an inventor who held a number of
patents on textile machinery, became one of Pawtucket’s leading citizens and several
buildings along Newport Avenue still bear his name. These include the Potter-Burns
(originally James C. Potter) Elementary School at 973 Newport and the
Potter-Lumb and Potter-Shaw houses at 1008 and 1012 Newport, both of which operate today as funeral homes.
Mr. Potter passed away in 1925, but the
Potter-Johnston Manufacturing company lasted another 34 years before it ceased operations in 1959. The factory wasn’t idle
for long. In 1962 it was purchased by Hasbro Industries, a company which
had also been founded by immigrants in nearby Providence
in 1917. Hasbro expanded and upgraded the Pawtucket plant facilities, which today occupy more than 300,000 square feet.
Mr. Potato Head made its debut in 1952 and therefore predates the
Pawtucket years of the Hasbro company, the beloved and iconic toy has become the best-known
symbol of the company. A statue of Mr. Potato Head greets employees and visitors to the world headquarters of the Hasbro Company in Pawtucket which is located at Potter’s old
In 2000, the state of Rhode Island chose Mr. Potato Head as its
official travel ambassador, launching a marketing campaign which involved
having 37 six-foot tall fiberglass statues of him decorated by local artists and placed in
various locations around the state. While only a few of these ambassadors
remain owing to weather, vandals, or private collectors (at
least one was known to have been auctioned off on eBay), the original is located right outside of Hasbro HQ as part of the Pawtucket scenery.
Hasbro, like any large
company, has experienced some economic ups and downs in recent years. the closure of toy retailer Toys-R-Us, the company's second-biggest customer, signals a time of transition for the industry.