Billy Possum

It’s totally unfair. Hydrox cookies came out four years before the introduction of Oreos, but Hydrox could never shake the image that it was a cheap knock-off, an ‘also-ran.’ As a consumer product, it’s completely out of your hands if you’re deemed a mighty Transformer or a loathsome Gobot.

Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all.

But sometimes it does.

This is the tale of two toys with two very different fates. The Teddy Bear, named after the charismatic president Theodore Roosevelt, was a sensation in the early twentieth century. It even displaced baby dolls as the top toy in all of the United States, but no one thought it would last.  The burgeoning mass-market toy industry thought the bear was a novelty that would die out once Teddy Roosevelt left office in 1909. So the powers that be went on the search for the next cuddly companion that America’s children would adore. It was completely logical that they looked at the next president for inspiration, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. In 1909, the toymakers of America placed their bets on the Taft presidency’s answer to the Teddy Bear: the Billy Possum.


This story comes to us from the insanely talented Jon Mooallem. He first presented a version of this story at Pop-Up Magazine #5 in San Francisco (which I totally had tickets for, but was too sick to attend). Mooallem’s latest story for the New York Times Magazine is about the heroics of the Turtle People during the Gulf oil spill. He’s working on a book about people and animals for Penguin Press. He’s my favorite person to follow on twitter (@jmooallem) because he regularly posts strange animal facts that he comes across in his research.  Like this:


or this:


The political cartoon that spawned the Teddy Bear craze
  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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