Billy Possum: President Taft's Answer to the Teddy Bear
By Lucas Reilly
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.