Billy Possum: President Taft's Answer to the Teddy Bear

iStock.com/stanley45
iStock.com/stanley45

Teddy bears are beloved everywhere. They make up roughly 70 percent of the billion dollar plush toy industry. (And in Britain, 35 percent of adults reportedly cuddle with a stuffed teddy each night.)

But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The supporters of President William H. Taft wanted you to snuggle up to an opossum instead.

The Birth of Billy Possum

In 1908, Taft beat out William Jennings Bryan to become the 27th U.S. President. At the time, mass toy manufacturing was a burgeoning market, aided largely by the booming popularity of Roosevelt’s teddy bear. Despite the bear’s success, industry eggheads believed the teddy craze would die when Roosevelt left office. So manufacturers looked to Taft for its successor.

That story starts, unsurprisingly, with Taft at the dinner table.

In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters”—a toasty pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. (Taft gobbled up the roasted marsupial so quickly that a nearby doctor advised him to slow down.) When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear.

They dubbed it “Billy Possum.”

The gift pleased Taft—as did the dinner. The next day, he told reporters, “Well, I certainly like possum ... I ate very heartily of it last night, and it did not disturb in the slightest my digestion or my sleep.” But what Taft saw as food, his supporters saw as money. The teddy bear boom had been profitable, and Taft’s supporters were confident the new toy could become the next fuzzy fad. They imagined America’s children tossing away their teddies, flocking to the closest storefront to get their hands on a plush opossum.  

Anti-Teddy Bear Rhetoric

The Georgia Billy Possum Company formed, churning out thousands of the stuffed toys. (The company’s slogan was “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.”) The year’s Stone and Webster Public Service Journal said, “Thousands of little possums are being made, which promise to be as favorably received as was the teddy bear.”

So began the Down-With-The-Teddy-Bear! rhetoric. The Los Angeles Times, for example, wrote that “the teddy bear has been relegated to a seat in the rear, and for four years, possibly eight, the children of the United States will play with Billy Possum.”

The market flooded with Billy Possum postcards, pins, and posters. Marketers introduced Jimmie Possum—Billy’s running mate—named after Vice President James Sherman. Supporters could join a group called the “Possum Club.” Composer J. B. Cohen and lyricist G. A. Scofield even wrote a ragtime tune called "Possum: The Latest Craze," whose last verse goes:

Ole Teddy Bar’s a dead one now Sence Bill Possum’s come to town. An’it taint no use to make excuse Or raise a fuus an’frown.   Jes get in touch wit’de President Eat possum when you dine. Den ask a Job of de Government An’ you’ll cert’ly be in line.

The teddy bear seemed doomed. In the world of print, one pro-Taft postcard showed an opossum feasting on a cooked teddy. Another declared the bear’s end in rhyme, reading, “No more Teddy Bear/We will fondle with glee/Billy Possum is future/Our mascot shall be.”

But it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year—the craze died by Christmastime. The teddy bear survived. But how?

For one, the story behind Taft’s toy wasn’t that compelling. The teddy bear’s story spotlighted a merciful, inspiring Roosevelt. The tale behind Billy Possum just highlighted a hungry, hungry Taft. Taft also had a dismal first year as president. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, cartoonists painted him as a “lost boy searching for his Teddy bear.” Ouch.

And, of course, it was a toy opossum.

Did Teddy Roosevelt Really Say That?

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

How a Herd of Goats Helped Save the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum from California’s Wildfires

Oleg Elkov/iStock via Getty Images
Oleg Elkov/iStock via Getty Images

This past spring, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, decided to prepare for the possibility of wildfires by clearing flammable brush around the perimeter. Instead of dousing it in herbicide or preemptively burning it away with controlled fire, they simply ushered in 500 very hungry goats.

According to Smithsonian.com, Vincent Van Goat, Selena Goatmez, and other aptly named ungulates are part of a service called 805 Goats, which offers a more cost-efficient and eco-friendly method of clearing land by which herds of goats eat every plant in sight.

Now surrounded by barren land, the institution watched several months pass without a fire—until last Wednesday, when library curator Randle Swan arrived on the premises and spotted California’s Easy Fire not too far off. He later told NBC Los Angeles that they had actually planned an emergency drill for that day.

CNN reports that although Simi Valley police mandated evacuations, some security workers, the library director, the facility manager, and the head curator all stayed on site to fortify artifacts against the approaching blaze. Along with records from Reagan’s political career, the library contains Nancy Reagan’s wedding ring, dresses, and many other personal belongings. The graves of both Reagans are also on the grounds.

Firefighting aircrafts and trucks steadily soaked the area with water in an attempt to stave off creeping flames.

"It's a pretty tough situation here, there's never been fires this close to the library," the library's executive director John Heubusch told KTLA. "It's a place of national treasure, and the flames are licking right up against it."

Both the parking lot and the heroic efforts of firefighters undoubtedly kept the wildfires from reaching the library and museum, but the goats’ earlier enterprise definitely didn’t go unacknowledged.

“One of the firefighters mentioned that they do believe the goats’ fire line helped them fight this fire,” library spokesperson Melissa Giller told CNN. “They just proved today how useful they really are.”

And they couldn’t have done it without their epic four-chambered stomachs—find out more about that and other awesome goat facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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