Teddy bears are immensely popular around the world, and most people know that their origin story occurred when President Teddy Roosevelt refused to kill a bear cub when he was on a hunting trip. Teddy bears have been a huge success in the decades since, and November 14th is even American Teddy Bear Day. Teddy bears continued to dominate the plush toy industry, comprising about 70% of the sales of stuffed animals.
However, in Teddy’s time, many marketers believed that his bears would barely outlast his presidency. Roosevelt was succeeded by his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and stuffed animal designers were ready to put all of their eggs in Taft’s basket.
Roosevelt remains known as a great conservationist, and it was fitting that his stuffed animal draw on his background as a lover of animals. Similarly, one of Taft’s biggest legacies was his stature. The myth persists to this day that he got stuck in a bathtub while serving as president, although this legend doesn’t hold water.
One night, Taft was eating dinner in Atlanta. At his insistence, the main course was “possum and taters,” which was a plate of sweet potatoes topped by a whole cooked possum. Taft gobbled it all up and was additionally presented with a stuffed possum that was called “Billy Possum,” which he did not consume. After this dinner, restaurants around the country began to serve possum meat, and its price skyrocketed for a short period of time. People even began to send Taft possums in the mail, and one brave possum even tried to break into the White House!
A few years after this dinner, the relationship between Taft and Roosevelt would sour to the point where Teddy ran for president once again so he could challenge his one-time heir apparent. Perhaps the seeds of that enmity were planted with the Billy Possum campaign, which was explicitly designed to knock the teddy bear off the shelf, in what might have been a proxy campaign for the one the two men would themselves be waging a few years later. The slogan of Billy Possum was “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” Billy Possum was soon joined on the market by Jimmie Possum, named for Taft’s Vice President, James Sherman.
Pop culture made the most of the Teddy-Billy rivalry, and songs were even written that took sides in the commercial feud:
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.
However, within a year the Billy Possum had flopped and the Teddy bear’s supremacy was never doubted. One of the key reasons was the imagery that the teddy bear evoked was far more inspiring than the one Billy Possum brought to mind. A merciful Teddy Roosevelt was simply a better story than a gluttonous William Howard Taft, and the rest is history.
For more on presidents losing their home states to the story behind Hacksaw Ridge, political video games, Greece’s Brexit over 2,000 year ago, the Battle of the Cats, America’s first Donald Trump, and more, check out the rest of my Profiles in History here!
For more Profiles in Nature, from China banning its ivory trade to the St. Augustine Monster to the Battle of the Cats to a Steve Irwin $100 bill to a deadly octopus to how 20% of fish eaten are mislabeled to a fish that weighs more than a pickup truck to a $300,000 fish to a fish named after Obama to a truly living “living fossil,” read here!