Presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt battled it out in the election of 1912, even though Roosevelt had handpicked Taft as his successor just four years earlier. What made the Republicans turn on each other? And did the invention of the teddy bear play a role?
In 1909, just after being elected president, Taft took on his biggest opponent yet: the teddy bear. In a year-long battle, Taft supporters tried to replace the beloved teddy bear with a new stuffed animal, Billy Possum, declaring, "Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum." The stuffed marsupial was praised in poems, promoted on postcards, and even shown eating a teddy bear. But why a possum? Unlike the inspirational story behind the first teddy bear, Taft supporters picked the possum for a simple reason: Taft liked eating possum. The president became so closely linked with possums that supporters mailed live possums to the White House.
Why didn't Billy Possum catch on like the teddy bear? The answer might be political. Roosevelt is consistently remembered as one of the best presidents, while Taft is perhaps one of the most forgotten. Tired of being ignored, Taft tried to make Billy Possum happen, but it ultimately backfired.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was in Mississippi on a bear hunting trip, but when the disappointed president couldn't find any bears, his assistants tied one to a tree so the president could finish the job. Roosevelt refused, claiming it was unsportsmanlike.
The story quickly spread, along with a political cartoon showing an adorable bear cub. When stuffed animal makers Morris and Rose Michtom saw the cartoon, they designed a stuffed toy bear, named "Teddy's Bear." Roosevelt was on board with the idea, and the teddy bear was born. Nearly a million teddy bears were sold within the first five years of its release.
The teddy bear was more than a stuffed animal. The teddy bear replaced dolls in the toy market, and it became proof of Roosevelt's popularity. The teddy bear was so closely linked with Roosevelt, toymakers assumed people would stop buying them once he left office.
As Roosevelt's term ended, toymakers looked for the next teddy bear. But what loveable animal could replace the teddy bear? In their search, Taft supporters latched onto a nocturnal marsupial as the next big children's toy.
The idea for Billy Possum was born at a 1909 banquet in Atlanta. President-elect Taft specifically requested "possum and taters," or a roasted possum on a heap of sweet potatoes. Taft loved the dish. In fact, he ate it so fast that a doctor warned him to slow down.
The next day, Taft said, “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.”
Less than 24 hours after Taft ate his possum and taters, a new company called the Georgia Billy Possum Company was formed. After the success of the teddy bear, Taft supporters hoped Billy Possum would become the next big thing. The Georgia Billy Possum Company jumped into gear, making deals with toy distributors to sell the stuffed animal to children across the country.
When the Georgia Billy Possum Company started manufacturing stuffed animals, they tried to make Billy Possum just like the real thing. They took possum skins from expired possums and stuffed them. The unfortunate result looked more like a rat than a possum. Instead of stuffing possums, the company decided to design a toy possum. Billy Possum was instantly declared the replacement teddy bear.
By 1907, Americans had already bought nearly a million teddy bears. So in 1909, Taft supporters and toy manufacturers were confident that Billy Possum would replace the teddy bear as America's new favorite stuffed toy.
The Los Angeles Times declared, "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 Possums.'"