In November of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt joined the governor of Mississippi on a hunting trip. The hunt didn’t go too well for President Roosevelt, though; while others in the hunt had bagged an animal, the President had no such luck. But as the hunt was coming to a close, some members of Roosevelt’s entourage had an idea to protect the reputation of the President. They captured a black bear and tied it to a tree, and then invited Roosevelt to kill the animal. But Roosevelt, seeing no challenge in the task, declined to kill the bear.
A cartoonist for the Washington Post used the event as inspiration for the above cartoon (the text says “Drawing the Line in Mississippi”), showing Teddy’s compassion for the bear. Shortly thereafter, a candy store owner named Morris Michtom came up with a way to capture this sentiment and the popularity of the President — in a huggable form. Michtom, per Wikipedia, created a plush bear toy and decided to name it after the bear in the comic. “Teddy’s bear” was born.
As we all know, the teddy bear became a staple of nurseries since — you’d be hard-pressed to find a young child in the United States who doesn’t have a teddy bear or the equivalent. But that knowledge comes from the power of hindsight. At the time, the burgeoning toy industry didn’t know that the teddy bear would be such a success for generations to come; rather, many believed that its popularity would wane after Theodore Roosevelt left office. Enter the toy below.
That’s not a bear — it’s an opossum. And you’ll note that it’s wearing a “Taft” button, as in “William Howard Taft.”
Taft was a big fan of opossum — as a dinner option, that is. Taft, as the Atlantic notes, “ate a lot of possums,” and the people and the media alike took notice time and time again (check out the middle of this article for examples). Well-wishers would send him opossum as gifts; hosts regularly served it for dinner, and in one case, according to Mental Floss, one group of Atlanta-area fans saw opportunity. The Taft boosters “presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum” and told Taft that “the toy was destined to be the next big thing—it was going to replace the teddy bear.” It’s name? Billy Possum.
The boosters were wrong. Billy Possum didn’t prove popular at all and it was out of the public consciousness before the end of Taft’s one and only term in office. As a result, if you happen to have an original Billy Possum, they’re worth a small fortune; as one toy collector notes, they fetch thousands of dollars.
From the Archives: Teddy Versus the Pigskin: When Teddy Roosevelt threatened the existence of college football.
Take the Quiz: Pick the right Roosevelt.
Related: “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 4.5 stars on nearly 2,000 reviews.