How Billy Possum, the Unsuccessful Successor to the Teddy Bear, Was Born
In January 1909, Teddy Roosevelt was packing his bags for an African safari as he prepared to leave the White House. Meanwhile, incoming President-Elect William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, was enjoying some golf in August, Georgia. And even meanerwhile, toy sellers across the United States were preparing for a world where the bestselling Teddy Bear would no longer have its namesake inspiration at the chief executive—which they thought spelled doom for its sales.
An answer to these toy sellers’ problems was about to come from an unlikely place: a banquet hosted by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. They invited Taft to be the guest of honor and asked him if he had any special requests for the event. He replied that he had just one—”I’ve had a lifetime longing to taste ‘possum and ‘taters. My visit to the south would be incomplete unless this wish is realized.”
Listen to the whole tale (tail?) here:
Word of this upcoming “possum and taters” dinner spread far and wide, and the newspaper The Atlanta Constitution immediately sounded the call for “100 large, fat, and tender possums” for Taft’s dinner. Responses came pouring in from all over but it was Judge Frank Park of Worth County, Georgia who won the contract to supply the 100 possums. He delivered on this promise by turning Worth County into the “world’s greatest possum hunt.” It was reported that everyone in the county was thinking only of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of possums.”
That pursuit brought Judge Park a massive 24 pound possum that he said would be the “piece de resistance” of the banquet. Park said that when he first saw this “stud marsupial” he thought of Taft, “our great proportioned friend,” believing they would be “two of a kind” at that possum supper.” According to Judge Park, he “even wondered if both were to meet each other in the stone age, which would eat the other.”
The answer to that question came in a report the next day that “there was only a shattered wreck remaining of the 18-pound Billy Possum that was ‘toted’ up to Mr. Taft’s table.” If this Associated Press article is to be believed, Taft made quick work of his meal: “After several helpings to the dish, Mr. Taft received a message from a doctor sitting nearby, to be careful, but he paid no attention to the warning.” The next day Taft said he very much enjoyed the possum and experienced no indigestion or ill effects, but he acknowledged that he would probably not be eating possum again that night.
That dinner, pictured below in a high-res photo that makes you feel like you’re entering The Shining, was touted as one of the most successful banquets in the history of the American South.
The banquet was considered such a success for several reasons. For one, there were the state-of-the-art over-the-top decor featuring real and electric American Beauty roses on the tables and a electric American flag sign behind Taft with blinking lights that created the illusion of waving in the wind. And then there was the menu—an elaborate feast featuring not only roast possum for 500 people but also sweet potatoes, wild turkey, quail, and turtle soup made from one giant 250-pound green turtle.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson tweeted about finding one of the original menus for this dinner a while back:
— Heather Cox Richardson (TDPR) (@HC_Richardson) April 18, 2019
And then there was the entertainment—a stringed orchestra, sermons, songs, all part of “a quaint program of old-time negro songs illustrating the primitive life and tastes of slavery days, sung as solos by preachers, doctors, and judges.” Playing upon the racial stereotypes about Black people and possums endemic to the times, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce treated Taft to the equivalent of a high-society minstrel show.
But perhaps an even less appetizing reason the banquet was considered a success is because Georgia largely got what they wanted from President-Elect Taft: a commitment that he would only appoint people to federal positions in the South if they were in good standing with their fellow citizens. This was code for not appointing any Black people, and it was a change in policy from Roosevelt. In his remarks at the dinner, Taft said he had been warned that he could never win over the south, but he said that instead, the south had won him over.
The Political Cartoon That Launched Billy Possum
A week before the dinner, Atlanta Constitution cartoonist Lewis Crumley Gregg drew this cartoon titled “If Teddy Bear, Why Not Billy Possum” with the caption “The New National Toy.” It is widely believed that a political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman is responsible for associating Teddy Roosevelt with a cute little bear, loosely based on a real-life bear hunt, but it’s not a perfectly straight line between Berryman’s cartoons and the Teddy Bear.
There is, however, a very direct line between Gregg’s “The New National Toy” cartoon, which was published five days before the banquet, and the first real toy possum named for Taft. A “new toy made of cloth” created by Miss Willie Taylor was was presented to Taft at the end of the lavish dinner, and it was named “Billy Possum, successor of Teddy bear.” The crowd went wild, with the Atlanta Constitution reporting, “It was some minutes before the laugh, which this had caused, entirely subsided.”
The crowd laughed because it was meant to be a joke, the idea of children cuddling up with a stuffed possum just because William Howard Taft ate one. But in the same capitalist country that would go on to produce pet rocks, even a joke can make serious money, so there was a race to bring the Billy Possum to market to capitalize on those sweet, sweet Teddy Bear dollars.
That race was led by Susie W. Allgood, a wealthy Georgia widow described as “queenly” and the most beautiful woman in the county. She had dedicated herself to caring for soldiers injured in the Spanish-American War, and when she heard about Taft’s upcoming possum dinner, she was inspired. Two days after the dinner, on January 17, 1909, she went to Washington, DC and applied for a patent for her new company—the Georgia Billy Possum Company. This is where the timing gets a little murky. At this point, Gregg’s illustration of “The New National Toy” had been out for a week, and Taft had been presented a stuffed “Billy Possum” at the dinner two days earlier. Despite that, Allgood claimed she was inspired to create Billy Possums as soon as she heard about the upcoming dinner. Perhaps that’s true, but it sounds like an effort to cut the cartoonist Gregg and the toymaker Miss Willie Taylor out of that possum fortune.
On the same day Allgood applied for a patent for the Georgia Billy Possum Company, a man named Jack Minor also applied for a patent for “The Minor Billy Possum Company.” Though it appears the Minor company did produce some toy possums and advertised for salespeople to sell them, they don’t seem to have had the same public relations skills that Susie Allgood have—that’s where she shined. Allgood rode high on the possum craze that swept the nation and caused the price of real possums sold to restaurants to skyrocket from fifty cents to ten dollars. Her name became synonymous with the Billy Possum across the country, and her early efforts at influence marketing brought Billy Possum to Broadway.
But unlike the Teddy Bear, Billy Possum was indeed a fad; a craze that went down in literal flames amid legal battles, mixed reactions from children, and a mysterious warehouse fire.
Listen as we uncover new details about the Billy Possum’s short, wild life and fiery death in our brand new episode “The Rise and Fall of Billy Possum.”