Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nerd History: The Billy Possum

I've recently become somewhat addicted to a podcast called 99% Invisible. While it markets itself as an architecture and design podcast, the quick hit podcasts are really something more than that, blurring the lines between building and culture, talking just as much as to how society and history influences design as it does in the other direction. While it hooked me in with a story about a person who would scrawl messages into drying concrete, it was a recent podcast that hit all my nerdy nerve centers.

I was a history/political science major, and I live in a small town that has, among its claims to fame, the house where William Howard Taft spent much of his childhood. When I had a chance to live in an apartment there, I jumped at the opportunity. With that said, whenever something about Taft hits my radar, whether it be a funny photo or a song about how fat he was, I get excited. I did not expect 99% Invisible to offer anything about Taft, but then they introduced me to one of the strangest political and historical stories I've encountered: The Billy Possum.

Everyone in the United States, at this point, knows the basics of the Teddy Bear, named after Teddy Roosevelt following a story of his supposed mercy toward a bear on a hunt (Roosevelt is often portrayed as a conservationist, which helps). The Teddy Bear became a phenomenon, as we know - chances are you had a teddy bear growing up, or perhaps still have one. So when it came time for Taft, Roosevelt's preferred successor, to run for President, the less-than-charismatic Taft needed a bit of a boost and was - perhaps inadvertently - able to provide one for himself.

So the story goes, Taft was at a Southern event where he was served possum. Quoted as saying that he was “for possum first, last, and all the time,” the concept sort of took on a life of its own. William Taft was branded by some as "Billy Possum," and his supporters, seeing how fruitful the teddy bear craze went, created a bit of a cottage industry around the concept of the "Billy Possum," a possum that could be produced, that children could play with, that people would wear on their pins, etc.

You don't need to be too on top of things to understand how this ended up, given that you likely never played with a billy possum growing up, and probably never heard of it period. Heck, the most significant resources I can find on the billy possum on Google end up being from antiquers and from eBay! The Billy Possum was sent to the dustbin of history, perhaps rightfully so, and it's just one of those interesting quirks. I suppose it's easier to focus on Taft's bathtub, anyway.

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