The Fad That Wasn’t

With Election Day upon us, I thought you guys might enjoy this short little story from the History Blog!

When Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, Congress passed a law giving her “all islands within three leagues of her coast”. However, when Mississippi was admitted to the Union five years later, Congress gave that state “all islands within six leagues of her shore”. There was some overlap, and both states claimed several islands just off the coast. But it wasn’t the islands themselves that were important: it was the oyster beds underneath the water that really caused the controversy: both states wanted the lucrative fishing grounds for themselves.

The matter wouldn’t be decided until 1906, when the Supreme Court ruled in Louisiana vs. Mississippi. However, a few years earlier, in November 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt came to the area to try and settle the matter personally without having to get the courts involved.

Roosevelt had been born a sickly, asthmatic child in an era when many people thought “effeminate society” caused such diseases, and not things like pathogens and genetic defects. Roosevelt was so sickly, in fact, that he was homeschooled, as his parents were afraid he wasn’t healthy enough to go to school. He was an excellent student, especially in geography, history and biology, and would become a fluent speaker of French and German. The young Roosevelt was always fascinated with animals, and even took up taxidermy after seeing the body of a seal at a local fish market.

Roosevelt eventually “grew out” of his disease, because he was able to become one of the manliest men of all time:

  • He became an avid boxer.
  • He rode and jumped horses, breaking his ribs several times.
  • When his wife and mother tragically died on the same day (for unrelated reasons), Roosevelt moved to North Dakota to become a cattle rancher. And, while there, a man named Mike Finnegan and two of his gang stole a boat Roosevelt had moored on the Little Missouri River. Roosevelt chased them through the icy Dakota Badlands for two weeks until he caught the gang and brought them to justice.
  • Roosevelt later formed his own cavalry regiment called the “Rough Riders”, and he led a horseless charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
  • On a hunting trip in 1901, a cougar attacked Roosevelt’s beloved hunting dogs. Roosevelt fought the cougar with a knife and killed it.
  • On October 14, 1912, while campaigning for his third term as president for the newly-formed “Bull Moose” party, Roosevelt was shot by a crazed saloonkeeper named John Schrank, who claimed that the ghost of William McKinley had come to him in a dream with orders to shoot Roosevelt. The bullet, which hit Roosevelt in the gut, had been slowed by a steel eyeglass case and the copy of his campaign speech he kept in his pockets. Because of his knowledge of biology and taxidermy, Roosevelt knew that he wasn’t badly injured, so instead of going to the hospital he gave his entire 50-page, 90-minute speech as planned, blood seeping into his shirt the whole time.
  • Perhaps my favorite Roosevelt story is that, when he was president, cavalrymen recruits from the army wrote him, complaining about having to ride 25 miles a day on horseback as part of their training. Roosevelt, then 51 years-old, rode 100 miles on horseback in a single day, just to shut them up.

Yes, Theodore Roosevelt was a badass. So when, on that diplomatic trip to Mississippi, the governor of the state, Andrew H. Longino, invited him on brief hunting trip to town of Smedes, Roosevelt happily accepted.

Several of the state’s elite joined them, and within a couple of days most everyone had killed an animal. But not Roosevelt. Despite having the services of Holt Collier, a former slave thought to be the best bear tracker in all of Mississippi, Roosevelt hadn’t even shot at, much less killed, anything. Roosevelt’s advisers were in a panic. They were afraid the president would be embarrassed to come up empty at such a high-profile hunt, so they badgered Collier into tracking down a bear for them. Collier found one, but the bear took off into a thicket of leaves and branches. Collier, not wanting the president to have to get dirty wading through the muck, told him to wait, that he’d flush to bear out towards him. And so Roosevelt waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, Roosevelt got tired of waiting and went to lunch, leaving the bear tracking to Collier and two of his advisers. And when the three men finally found the small, mangy bear, the advisers ordered Collier to knock it in the head with the butt of his rifle. The advisers then beat the poor bear mercilessly with sticks to stun it. The three men then tied the bear to a tree and sought out Roosevelt so the president could have his “kill”.

The only problem was, Roosevelt was having none of it. Like most hunters, Roosevelt thought hunting wasn’t about just killing an animal. It was about tracking him down in the woods, carefully stalking the prey. It was manifestly unfair and downright unsportmanlike to shoot a barely conscious bear tied to a tree. So he refused.

A political cartoonist named Clifford Berryman heard about the incident a few days later, and published a cartoon about it in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902:


America loved the story, especially after Berryman changed the cartoon in later editions of the paper to make the bear smaller, fuzzier and cuter, as seen above.

In New York, a Russian Jewish immigrant named Morris Michtom saw Berryman’s cartoon and fell in love. Michtom owned a candy shop on 404 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn, and at night he made stuffed animals with his wife, Rose, to sell in the shop. He quickly created a cute stuffed bear, which he named “Teddy’s Bear”. He sent one to the White House in hopes that Roosevelt would give him permission to use the name. The president gave his approval, and the bears ended up being a stunning success. Michtom found that there was no way he and his wife could meet the immense demand for “Teddy’s Bears” at their home “factory”, so he founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company to make them by the millions:


It soon seemed as though every American child had a Teddy Bear. Although other companies would get in on the action with the more generic “Roosevelt Bears”, the Ideal Toy Company would survive until 1997, when, after being bought and sold several times, the company’s assets were liquidated when parent company Tyco merged with Mattel. And, for those of you who like trivia with their history, Michtom’s daughter, also named Rose, would appear as a background character in over 40 episodes of the classic TV comedy Get Smart:


*     *     *

We don’t think about stuffed animals too often these days. We don’t blink when our children play with stuffed meerkats, stuffed alligators or stuffed lions. Almost any kind of animal you can think of has been turned into a toy. But parents of the early 1900s were confused by the Teddy Bear. I mean, it was one thing for little girls to play with dolls. After all, dolls taught girls how to be mothers, right? So why would little girls want a stuffed bear instead of a stuffed baby? And why would boys want such a toy at all? The whole thing was a bit disturbing to parents. But it seems that kids back then were just as fickle as kids are today, so most of those early 20th century parents assumed the whole “Teddy Bear” thing was just a passing fad.

*     *     *

Although incredibly popular as president, Roosevelt chose not to seek a third term in 1908. The logical choice for the Republican candidacy should have been Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, for whom Fairbanks, Alaska is named. But Roosevelt preferred his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt used his considerable power to make sure that Taft, not Fairbanks, was named the Republican candidate.

Taft easily won the 1908 election, taking 321 electoral votes to 162 for the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. While political parties might change over time, the whole “Red States” and “Blue States” thing is much older than you might think: the heavily Democratic South voted overwhelmingly for Bryan, while the industrial North voted for Republican Taft:



Inaugurations weren’t held until March back then, so in January after the election,  President-Elect Taft went on a tour of the South, mostly to reassure Southerners that he would represent their interests, too.

At a stop in Atlanta, a gala dinner was given for Taft, where the notoriously rotund future president was served opossum aux patates: an opossum roasted whole – head and tail included – on a bed of sweet potatoes. As the dish was brought out, the orchestra started playing a jaunty tune, people stood up and sang along, and Taft was presented with a small stuffed opossum which had been named “The Billy Opossum”. Taft supporters in Georgia had hoped that Billy Opossum would become the new Teddy Bear, and that the kids of America would jump all over the newest craze. In fact, a company called “The Georgia Billy Opossum Company” had already been formed and was ready to flood the market with stuffed toys.

All this might sound a wee bit silly to many of you. If you grew up in the South, you probably think of opossums as a huge pest, and quite possibly the least cuddly animal in North America. But opossums weren’t that common in the north, and to many kids in New York City or Philadelphia, opossums were as exotic as kangaroos and koala bears. And Billy Opossum was pretty cute, much cuter than a real-life opossum:


This is a not an original “Billy Opossum”. In the early days of stuffed animals, American and European companies often stole each other’s ideas. This opossum, from 1910, was made by the German company Steiff. 

Taft, incidentally, loved opossum. He was quoted as saying that he would eat “possum first, last, and all the time”. In fact, Taft ate so much opossum during the dinner that a doctor, seated nearby, slipped a note to Taft suggesting that he slow down a bit. Of course, Taft was our most obese president by far, and there’s an (untrue) urban legend that he once got stuck in a “regular” bathtub at the White House and had to call aides butter up the sides of the tub to free him. Also according to legend,  Taft then ordered large, custom-made bathtub to prevent a repeat of the incident; the truth is more complicated than that. Having said that, it’s probably not surprising that a man who seemed to eat almost anything would like roasted opossum, too.

As Taft continued his tour of the South, word spread about his love of opossum. He was served opossum often, and was even given several live specimens along the way. The whole tour turned in to a kind of “opossum fever”. All sorts of Billy Opossum ephemera was produced, including postcards, posters and buttons. Even a publication as august as the Los Angeles Times assured its readers that kids would soon throw away their Teddy Bears in order to snuggle with Billy Opossum instead.

Toy manufacturers, a relatively new industry, gleefully geared up for the newest fad. Stores across the country stocked up on Billy Opossum toys by the hundreds, and some even ordered live opossums to show their young customers the real thing. It should have been the biggest event of the day, a scene to rival the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1982 or the Tickle Me Elmo fad of 1996.

Only it wasn’t. Kids looked at Billy Opossum, shrugged their shoulders, and went back to their Teddy Bears. Billy Opossum was a huge flop, the first for the fledgling American toy industry. By April of that year – scarcely three months later – Billy was gone from shelves and almost completely forgotten about. Billy Opossum is only known today in the world of stuffed animal collectors, who pay between $1,000 and $5,000 for the doll, depending on condition.

So why was the Teddy Bear perhaps the best selling toy of all time? And why was Billy Opossum such a failure? Some think it has do to with their origins. People loved the story of the Teddy Bear, about how a man as powerful as Roosevelt would show mercy on a such a poor, pathetic animal. Taft actually ate his opossum, and the whole “opossum mania” thing seemed forced.

We probably won’t ever know why, at least until we can build a time machine and send sociologists back to 1909 to take a bunch of surveys. But the funny thing is, of all the Americans who fell in love with the Teddy Bear story, only a tiny few remembered how it ended. Although he had refused to shoot the bear, Roosevelt knew the bear was injured beyond help. Roosevelt, the great hunter, couldn’t bear to see an animal suffer needlessly so he ordered someone else to shoot the bear to put it out of its misery.

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