Billy Possum

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: It’s totally unfair. Hydrox cookies came out in 1908. Oreos didn’t show up until four years later, but it didn’t matter. Hydrox could never shake the image of being a knock-off, an also-ran. Hydrox lovers would champion its tangier cream filling. Vegetarians would praise them for being cruelty free, while America’s favorite cookie, the Oreo, contained animal lard until the mid 90s. As a consumer product, it’s just not up to you. Sometimes you’re deemed the mighty Transformer, and sometimes you’re the loathsome Gobot.

“One shall stand and one shall fall!”

RM: It’s capricious who wins. Swiss cake roll vs. Ho-ho. Twizzler vs. Red Vine. Maybe yours was the first family on the block with the technologically-savvy, superior betamax player, only to be overwhelmed by the mediocre VHS tape. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all. But sometimes it does.

Jon Mooallem (JM): I’m Jon Mooallem.

RM: Jon is a writer with the New York Times Magazine and a writer for Pop -Up Magazine, the live magazine in San Francisco, where the story first appeared.

JM: Right, so it’s 1902 and Theodore Roosevelt is president.

RM: And he decides to vacation in a town called Smedes in the Mississippi woods, where he can hunt black bear.

JM: He’s a big outdoorsman. Big hunter.

RM: And this hunting trip became kind of a famous story.

JM: Basically he had spent a few days hunting and I don’t think they even saw a single bear. They definitely didn’t get to shoot at any. And then one morning, the dogs get the scent of a bear and they follow it down to this really weedy place where the president’s guide says, “you know what? don’t bother going in there and troubling yourself. I’ll go in there and I’ll flush the bear out. You just stay here and I’ll flush it right to you.

RM: So Roosevelt waits and waits. But then he gets bored and decides to go off and eat lunch.

JM: Eventually the dogs do corner the bear. And the guide, not really knowing what to do, leaps off his horse, cracks the bear over the head with the butt of his rifle, knocks it unconscious or semi-unconscious and ties it to a tree. And then starts blowing away on his bugle, trying to call Roosevelt back so the president can be the one who has the honor of shooting it.

RM: Roosevelt hears the bugle and makes his way back to the hunting party.

JM: And what he finds is this bear. It’s a female bear. It weighs about 235 pounds. And it’s tied to a tree. It’s still semi-counscious, it’s injured. It looks a little mangy. Probably about half as heavy and big as it should be, but there’s been a real drought going on in the area.

RM: The bear looks pathetic. And Roosevelt takes pity on it.

JM: He decides it’s unsportsmanlike to shoot this thing. You know, he’s not going to do and he doesn’t want anyone else to do it either. So he lowers his gun and in this sort of merciful moment. And word of this spreads and a political cartoonist draws a cartoon of the moment of him, you know, showing the bear this mercy. And the way the cartoonist draws the bear is almost like a little labrador puppy or a golden retriver puppy. It’s sort of on its butt, on its hind legs, and it’s got these big, round, perked-up ears, almost like Mickey Mouse. And these big wide eyes and it’s staring at the president, waiting to see what its fate will be.

RM: The cartoon was called “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.”

JM: And from that, basically, spawed the teddy bear. This adorable little bear in the cartoon was turned into a three-dimensional plush toy.

RM: The very first teddy bear was either made by a German company called Steiff, or a Brooklyn toystore owner, depending on who you ask.

JM: And they name it after Theodore Roosevelt. They call it “Teddy’s Bear.”

RM: It’s a huge sensation.

JM: And it’s actually more popular than baby dolls, which freaks everyone out a little bit. You know, why should their children be playing with bears and not dolls? It’s a little savage. And within a few years, I think Steiff is close to producing close to a million teddy bears a year and shipping them to the US.

RM: But it was considered so bizarre that kids would play with a stuffed bear that people just assumed it was a novelty. And as soon as Roosevelt left office, no one would want them anymore.

JM: And at this time, the whole idea of mass-produced toys was also really new. So the toy industry wanted to capitalize on its rally and keep it going. So it was really looking for whatever was going to be the next cuddly plaything that American kids were going to want. Though it had no idea what that might be.

RM: So fast forward to 1909. And Roosevelt’s term is about up. And the president-elect is Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft.

JM: And that January, January 1909, Taft is in Atlanta. He’s trying to woo the South. Trying to convince them that his administration is going to, you know, take them seriously as a constituency. And he’s the guest of honor at this banquet.

RM: And the chamber of commerce in Atlanta decides it’s going to serve him the truest, most unpretentious southern dish around.

JM: It’s something that a writer of the time- I found this little book about southern food from the time- calls it the “Christmas goose of the epicurian negro.”

RM: The meal was ‘possum and ‘taters.

JM: And what it was was an opossum would be roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes, and then presented whole on a platter, with its head on and tail on, and often you’d get a smaller, little sweet potato crammed betweent the animal’s teeth. 50 teeth.

RM: By the way, 50 teeth is apparently the most teeth of any North American mammal.

JM: Which is fascinating. In the end the one that they brought to Taft’s table weighed 18 pounds. All of a sudden, the orchestra strikes up and the guests burst into song. Suddenly Taft is presented with this surprise gift. And it’s a small, stuffed opossum toy.

RM: And this is a brand new invention that some local Taft supporters are trying to position as William Taft’s presidency’s answer to the teddy bear.

JM: They’re calling it the “Billy Possum.” Already there was a company set up called the Georgia Billy Possum Company. According to one account, within 24 hours of that banquet, there were already deals being brokered for Billy Possums with distributors accross the country. In covering the banquet, the LA Times announced that “The teddy bear has been relegated to seat in the rear, and for four years, possibly eight, the children of the United States will play with billy possums.”

RM: So from then on, a little bit of possum-mania started. There were billy possum postcards.

JM: Billy possum pins, billy possum pitchers for your cream when you had coffee. There was was a ragtime tune called Possum: The Latest Craze. As Taft traveled around the south, some people actually started giving him live opossums in cages when he would make public appearances. Sort of handing them over like they were floral bouquets.

RM: Soon, billy possums were in toy stores from New York to San Francisco.

JM: Because real opossums weren’t that common in cities then and no one really knew what they were. A toystore in Brooklyn ran an in-store promotion with a live, captive opossum that they could show off to kids so that kids could familiarize themsevles with what this new animal they were going to be best friends with was. I found an advertisement for this story that read “Do not let it be said that any man, woman, or child in Brooklyn has not seen the cute little animal whose name is mentioned more in all parts of the world today than any other.” Previously there had been poems in newspapers sort of mourning the passing of the dolls and how sad it was that these teddy bears were coming into nurseries and vanquishing them. And now there were poems in newspapers about billy possums displacing teddy bears.

RM: But since you probably never heard of a billy possum, you can get what comes next.

JM: It was a total flop. And the billy possum was forgotten and almost entirely out of stores within a couple of months. So in other words, the billy possum never even made it to see Christmas time. Which is a special kind of tragedy for a toy.

RM: There are several possible explanations as to why the billy possum never took off. The first, and probably what you’re thinking right now is this: opossums are ugly and nobody likes them! But it was also the dawn of the mechanical toy. And even some teddy bears had evolved into windup animatrons.

JM: There was French-made teddy bear that quote “winds upand is calculated to indulge in a number of ludcrious somersaults.”

RM: How could a limp, stuffed bill possum compete with that? But Jon Mooallem argues that, at its heart, the acceptance of teddy bear and the rejection of billy possum comes down to their origin stories.

JM: In the story that was told about Roosevelt and this bear, it was a very kind of tender moment, where Roosevelt was showing the bear mercy and when you looked at that cartoon, the way the bear was drawn, it looked like something you just want to sweep up into your arms and take care of and that was vulernable and that needed your help.

RM: It looked like a teddy bear as we know it. Though no one knew it at the time.

JM: The story with Taft, it didn’t give it anything else. You know, Taft ate his opposum for supper. And he ate a lot of it, and he ate so much that after his first several helpings, a doctor seated nearby apparently passed him a note suggesting it might be a good idea if he slowed down a little.

RM: Taft even bragged to reporters the next day about how much possum he consumed.

JM: “Well I like opossum and I ate very heartily of it last night. And it did not disturb in the slightest my digestion or my sleep.”

RM: The possum was vulnerable, I guess, splayed out on a bed of taters, but you’re not exactly rooting for it.

JM: I started feeling really bad for Taft, who, the more I read about him, he was this totally colorless politican and he didn’t even actually want to be president by some accounts. He was actually strong-armed into it by Roosevelt and he never really measured up to Roosevelt’s charisma and charm. I mean Roosevelt was the kind of guy, you know, no matter what he did, history seemed eager to glorify him for it.

RM: Case in point, the messed up thing about the famous story of Teddy’s bear on that hunting trip in Mississippi, is it isn’t even the whole truth.

JM: You have to remember that Roosevelt was a hunter. He was there to hunt bears. He wasn’t a PETA activist or something like this. While he did show the bear mercy, it was a very particular kind of mercy. After he refused to shoot it, he said, “put it out of its misery.” And one of his hunting buddies came and slit the bear’s neck open with a knife. They carried the bear’s body back to camp over the back of a horse and they basically ate off it for the next several days. And on the last night of their trip, they finished it off. They roasted its paws and, I kid you not, they ate the paws with a side of possum and taters.

RM: So that’s why you will never cuddle up with a billy possum. Just like you will never watch a betamax tape. Or travel to Gobotron with Leader-1. And you will never again dunk a Hydrox cookie. Man, I miss Hydrox cookies! They were really tasty.

Comments (12)

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  1. R. S. Bedell

    Bears are fouund on every continent except Antarctica. Possums are only found in the Western Hemisphere. And they are PESTS. Not to mention UGLY. We call the possum that invades our front porch to scavenge cat food Clumlee because of its dull expression and obese body.

    1. Martha

      Oh, but opossums are so interesting! They’re sort of a fossil animal–imagine mammals like that in the time of the dinosaurs–and they are special because they’re the only marsupial in North America, and possibly also in South America. All other marsupials that I know of live only in Australia.

      Opossums have a hard time because they are rather slow and their tails have no hair. They get hit by cars a lot and their tails and ears freeze in the cold. They are perfectly adapted to the purpose and environment for which they evolved (the little sharp teeth, for instance, and the long snout help them grab for food, which is useful if you don’t have hands) but the environment has been changed by humans faster than opossums can get used to it.

      I understand that you think it’s ugly but the opossum cannot help its appearance. Personally, I’m thrilled when I get to see a live one, since I usually get to see only poor dead ones on the road.

      I suggest taking in the cat food at night if you don’t want wild visitors eating it. But I’d probably leave it out, knowing how hard it is for wild creatures to find food and survive in this human-created environment of ours.

  2. T. Eyler

    Classic description from late British naturalist Gerald Durrell:

    “like an alligator in a dirty fur coat”

  3. Squirrel McNuthatch

    Aww. That possum toy is adorable. I find real possums cute as well, kind of in the “so ugly they’re cute” category.

  4. i adore Possums although i recently conceded that my pronunciation and spelling is a phonetic childhood hold over….”it’s not possum it’s O’Possum like O’Riley or O’Donnell” I would say. I guess when i heard someone say they saw a possum, i merged the the letters all together like it was his name. I saw Charlie and I saw Opossum. They were having tea.

    Anyway, Opossum is the only marsupial in north america which is just plain cool. Take that haters. I heart O ! ;)

  5. Used to come across possum heads in the yard when cutting the grass. Dunno what kind of predator skulked around the yard… but it didn’t eat possum heads. Possum heads didn’t make very good toys, though.

  6. Nicole

    Never say never, the Hydrox cookie is back! Planet Money’s recent podcast talks about it. The company that makes them is called Leaf. Look it up!

  7. Matthew McGrath

    Good news everyone! The wonderful Hydrox cookie is back, and the first packages just recently hit store shelves! I just received the six pack I bought on amazon, and they are every bit as delicious as I remember :D

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