Cristen Conger

Billy Possum: The Wildly Popular Stuffed Animal You've Never Heard Of

"Teddy Bears are now called in. Billy's Possum is the thing." - 1909 postcard.
"Teddy Bears are now called in. Billy's Possum is the thing." - 1909 postcard.
Cornell Library

These days, the item most closely associated with President William "Big Bill" Taft is the bathtub. Weighing more than 300 pounds when he moved into the White House in 1909, Taft had a gargantuan, new tub installed that stretched 7 feet (2.1 meters) long and 41 inches (1.04 meters) wide to fit his ample frame, stoking rumors that he had gotten stuck in the old one and needed a team of men and butter sticks to hoist him out. Indeed, Taft's size was an enduring butt of jokes throughout his political career and legacy, but before the bathtub, it was Taft's taste for possum that got people talking.

Historical legend has it that while Taft was traveling in Georgia during his presidential campaign, he was served barbecued possum and potatoes and gobbled it right up. (Side note #1: As an Atlantan, I must take a moment to emphasize that I have never tasted possum, nor seen it on any local menus.) Proving that the media have always loved hokey headline fodder, word of Taft's affinity for possum meat spread, and his campaign nickname -- unfortunately? -- became Billy Possum. (Side note #2: If were running against Taft, my food-related nickname might've been Brussel Sprout Cristen, and I mostly certainly would've lost -- not to mention that women couldn't even vote back then.)

Around this time, toy manufacturers were reveling in the profits from the wildly popular teddy bear stuffed animals, named for sitting President Theodore Roosevelt (who, incidentally loathed the nickname "Teddy" and once called it "an outrageous impertinence"). By 1907, teddy bears had even come into vogue as hip accessory for urban women, like vintage predecessors to purse dogs. But some fretted that once Roosevelt left office, teddy bear sales would wane, so once it became clear that Taft would win the election, all bets were places on the stuffed "Billy Possum" to become the next hot toy, courtesy of Taft. Not surprisingly, kids didn't cozy up to the idea of a stuffed possum, not to mention that the teddy bear never declined in popularity as predicted, which is really too bad for Taft, otherwise he might be remembered for more than just an awkward bathroom incident that probably never happened.