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Weird, but not unprecedented.
SWAMP-DWELLER

Before Trumpy Bear, president William Howard Taft had “Billy Possum”

By Jenni Avins

You might think that a creature like Trumpy Bear is a unique sign of the absurdity of our times. The stuffed bear—which features a yellow comb-over, a red tie, an American flag blanket, and happens to be made in China—debuted last year and has only recently gone viral on Twitter.

This may seem like a distinctly 2018 phenomenon, but Trumpy Bear is not an aberration. The toy is part of an all-American tradition of soft, strange animals designed in the presidential image.

More than a century before a commercial aired featuring a guy in a golf cart exclaiming that Trumpy Bear “makes my golf game great again,” William Howard Taft had Billy Possum—a plush marsupial created to celebrate the 27th US president’s affinity for dining on opossum as a main course.

But to fully understand Billy (because WTF?) we must first look to Taft’s immediate predecessor, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt—and the father of the teddy bear as we know it.

In 1902, Roosevelt was hunting bear in Mississippi and struggling to locate a target. One of his assistants cornered a black bear and tied it to a tree, according to the National Park Service.

Roosevelt, famous for his big-game hunting, refused to shoot the bear, considering such a move unsportsmanlike. The story went 1902-viral, thanks to a cartoon depicting the event that ran in the Washington Post. An enterprising Brooklyn toymaker saw an opportunity to capitalize on it with, yes, the “Teddy” bear.

In his 2014 book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, journalist Jon Mooallem writes that the teddy bear unexpectedly unseated the doll as children’s preferred plaything. But the relatively new mass-manufactured toy industry expected the craze to die out when Roosevelt left office. They were ready, writes Mooallem, to create the next teddy bear. And it would be based on a sharp-toothed, nocturnal swamp-dweller.

In January of 1909, president-elect Taft was the guest of honor at a dinner in Atlanta, where the city’s chamber of commerce served him a local delicacy: possum and taters. “An opossum, roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes, was typically presented whole,” writes Mooallem. “Head on, pale tail hanging off it like a meaty noodle—with a smaller potato crammed between the animal’s 50 tiny teeth. The one brought to Taft’s table weighed 18 pounds.”

After he polished off his dinner, Taft was presented with the gift of a “small stuffed opossum toy, beady-eyed and bald-eared”: the Billy Possum. Mooallem writes:

A company, the Georgia Billy Possum Co., was already being formed in Atlanta for large-scale manufacturing of these stuffed animals. According to one account, deals for Billy Possums were being brokered with toy distributors across the country within twenty-four hours of the banquet. (It seems that the company initially experimented with stuffing actual opossum skins, but wound up with something too fleshy-looking and repulsive—like a pale, limp rat.) The Los Angeles Times covered the unveiling of the new toy at the Chamber of Commerce banquet and announced, “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.'”

Billy Possum had his 15 minutes of fame, turning up on postcards, pins, pitchers, and even in a ragtime song. There were “possums-on-a-stick,” Mooallem writes, “to wave like flags.” But however exotic Billy’s attraction or patriotic his fans, the enthusiasm was dead by Christmas. Mooallem reasons that its backstory was weaker than the teddy bear’s (and frankly, the creature was was less attractive).

“The bear was a helpless victim roped to a tree. The president of the United States decided to show it some mercy,” writes Moallem. “Taft, on the other hand, ate his opossum for supper.”