Billy Possum

By: Cassie Burris

With Christmas fast approaching, one toy that has not gone out of style is the teddy bear. Thousands of bears are sold each year by companies from Build-a-Bear to Walmart. The teddy bear is everywhere. But did you know that there was almost a toy that replaced the teddy bear we know today? That instead of a soft cuddly bear, you could be snuggling a stuffed possum named Billy?

Let’s take a look at where the teddy bear got its start.  It all began when President Theodore “Teddy“ Roosevelt was on a bear hunting trip near Onward, Mississippi on November 14, 1902. Mississippi’s Governor Andrew H. Longino had invited him, but unlike other hunters in the group, Roosevelt had not located a single bear. Roosevelt’s assistants tracked down a black bear and tied it to a tree. They summoned the president and suggested that he shoot it. Viewing this as extremely unsportsmanlike, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. The news of this event soon spread through newspaper articles across the country. The articles retold the story of the president who refused to shoot a bear. Roosevelt was well-known as a big game hunter, so his refusal was quite a big deal.

Clifford Berryman, a political cartoonist, read one of these articles and decided to satirize the president’s refusal to shoot the bear. Berryman’s cartoon appeared in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902. Morris Michtom, a Brooklyn candy shop owner, saw the cartoon and had an idea. Michtom and his wife, Rose, decided to create a stuffed toy bear and dedicate it to the president who refused to shoot a bear. He called it ”Teddy’s Bear.” After receiving Roosevelt’s permission to use his name, Michtom mass-produced the toy bears.

When Theodore Roosevelt left the office of president, toymakers encountered a problem. Their big moneymaker, Teddy’s Bear, might not sell once President Roosevelt was no longer in office. So, they took one look at the next president and decided to make a new toy. “Billy Possum” was the toy they created. It was a stuffed opossum made in honor of Ohio’s very own William Howard Taft. The toy companies were sure that they had struck gold. They hoped the stuffed opossum would sell just as well if not better than the teddy bear.

How did an opossum come to be associated with President Taft? The story goes that in January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta. At Taft’s request, the main course was “possum and taters.” 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.”

Postcard to Mrs. M. Marcellus from the Theodore Roosevelt Center Archives.

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.” Anti-teddy bear ads were all over the place. Companies tried to push the sales of the stuffed opossum. Unfortunately, sales died quickly, and it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year—the craze died by Christmastime. The opossum failed and the teddy bear endured.

Over the years many people have tried to make new stuffed animals, but nothing has had the lasting endurance of the teddy bear. The attempt at the sales of Billy Possum shows us the desire to make the next best thing. Unfortunately, the sales of the little stuffed possum did not become the next best thing. Maybe someday something will overthrow the seat the teddy bear holds.

Questions for Students:

What other toys could be made based on historical figures?

Why do you think demand was so high for the teddy bear? Why was demand so low for Billy Possum?

Posted November 23, 2019

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