A Better Mousetrap


IT IS RALPH WALDO EMERSON whom we most commonly accuse of having coined the saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But in his Journal , 1855, we find this entry on “common fame”: “I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

Indeed, it was only in 1889, seven years after Emerson’s death, that his admirer Sarah Yule, in Borrowings , claimed she’d once heard him speak a catchier version of the thought: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

Meanings change through time, however, and in today’s street version of the quotation we somehow choose to believe that Emerson was not addressing the worth of the common man but was instead offering a prescription for making it big in a capitalist economy. But even with this metamorphosis in meaning it is remarkable just how literally the quotation has been taken by a small and determined segment of our population.

“You should see some of the proposals that come in from mousetrap inventors,” says Joseph H. Bumsted, former vice president of the Woodstream Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of mousetraps, in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “They’re handwritten. They’re garbled. And their traps are almost always impractical, or unsellable. … But all of them remember that supposed quotation from Emerson. They feel it was written just for them, and they recite it as if that in itself were reason for Woodstream to buy their ideas!”

The mousetrap is far and away the most invented machine in all of American history. Since it first opened for business in 1838, the U.S. Patent Office reports that it has granted more than forty-four hundred mousetrap patents, 95 percent of them to amateur inventors.

Roughly forty new mousetrap patents are granted each year, every year, in thirty-nine official subclasses that include “Impaling,” “Smiting,” “Swinging Striker,” “Nonreturn Entrance,” “Choking or Squeezing,” “Constricting Noose,” “Electrocuting and Explosive,” and ten times that many mousetrap patent applications are turned away.

But what would-be mousetrap makers do not seem to know—or seem not to fret much over if they do—is that of the more than forty-four hundred mousetraps patented in U.S. history, fewer than two dozen have ever earned their creators a cent in the marketplace. And in an even more devastating contradiction of the Emersonian career path, there is good reason to believe that his better mousetrap has already been built.

That trap is the fundamental snap trap, created in 1899 and patented in 1903 (No. 744,379) by John Mast of Eititz, Pennsylvania, and still manufactured there by the Woodstream Corporation under the trade name Victor. It consists simply of a three-by-one-and-a-half-inch pallet of pine upon which are stapled a fifteen-gauge coil-spring-powered “killer bar” or “striker”; a two-inch-long “trigger rod”; and a “bait pedal” that will deal out death to Mus musculus , the one-ounce house mouse, the instant it touches the dab of peanut butter or crumb of cheese used as a lure.

Of the more than forty-four hundred mousetraps patented, fewer than two dozen have earned their creators a cent.

The snap trap’s annual sales are a company secret (whispers put them in the vicinity of thirty million). But the Woodstream Corporation is willing to acknowledge that the Victor snap trap outsells all other American mousetraps combined —including its own less popular models and those of sixty other U.S. mousetrap manufacturers—by a ratio of roughly two to one. The snap trap is more than a machine for breaking the necks of a quarter-billion mice per year. In its near-century of pre-eminence it has become an essential artifact of our culture.

But by far the most intriguing aspect of the simple snap trap is that despite centuries of trying—both before and after Emerson—and despite sophisticated modern technology, no better mousetrap has ever been created. Why?

OF NECESSITY, EARLY AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDERS made their own mousetraps. Blacksmiths, craftsmen, and snowed-in farmers with long winter nights to while away tended to make the best. These early, unpatented traps typically captured or killed mice by dropping them through hinged doors into containers of water; by leading them through evernarrowing passageways into multiple-mouse cages of wood, wire, or wicker; or by luring them onto a flat block of hardwood, then dropping another large block from above. Generally called “drowners,” “group imprisoners,” “beheaders,” and “mashers” by today’s mousetrap collectors, these simple traps dominated until the mid-nineteenth century.