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


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.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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