- Historic Sites
A Better Mousetrap
In a nation of inventors it has always been the single most invented thing. At this very moment hundreds of Americans are busy obeying Emerson’s famous dictum—even though the machine he exhorted them to build has existed in near-transcendental perfection for almost a century.
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
But once the U.S. Patent Office came into existence and mousetraps could be made for fame and, it was rumored, for money, the straightforward inventions of the past began to give way to slickness and contrivance.
In his 1878 patent application for a Combined MouseTrap and Box for Paper Collars and Like Articles, Cornelius Henry of New York City, aware that “in traveling it frequently happens that the traveler is annoyed by a mouse cutting in his room and about the furniture,” argued that with his dual-purpose device the sophisticated traveler need only remove his paper collars from their box, place bait inside, and wait. “The mouse enters the opening (in the side of the collar box), nibbles the bait on hook h , the door f is disengaged from the detent t , and springs shut, thereby capturing the mouse, subsequently to be transferred to the water in the slop-bucket. The collars can then be returned to the box.”
U.S. Patent No. 211,094 was granted to Henry on January 7, 1879. But the combination mousetrap and collar box never sold at retail; buyers shied away from returning their collars to an animal enclosure and from listening to the sounds of a mouse drowning.
So too with Charles Henert’s 1869 Improved Animal Trap, which consisted simply of an up-side-down metal colander that, when tilted up at one edge, would ( fall and capture a mouse that had nibbled at an interior bait, and then required the trapper to pierce his quarry to death by hand, using a footlong multibladed knife suspended from the center of the domed cage.
In 1876 Daniel Conner, of Athens, Ohio, and a half-dozen others patented a genre of mousetrap today referred to as “claws,” which obliged the mouse to leap up to grasp a crust of bread suspended overhead, whereupon a varying number of stilettolike arms swooped down to transfix it. Marshaling an abundance of gears, spears, springs, and levers enclosed within a six-by-six-byfive-inch mahogany box, Emanuel T. Lynch et al., of Corning, Iowa, patented No. 224,932, the first “pierceand-release” model, which promised to puncture an animal six times behind the shoulders and then set it loose to stagger off and bleed to death far from the trap.
Not all traps of the era were so savaee. Several inventors came forward with machine-made modifications of earlier “group imprisoners,” which live-trapped between five and fifteen mice within a simple boxlike container. The most popular of these was the Delusion, patented in 1876 by J. H. Norris and L. B. Brown of Bradford, Pennsylvania, which, unlike most mousetraps before or after, sold well.
The trap’s original instructions advised the owner simply to submerge the trap and its occupants in water. But as the Delusion’s manufacturers fully realized—since they later marketed the same trap under the retail name Catchemalive —there was a softhearted segment of the mousetrapping public that typically released its captives in a nearby field or woods, or in a neighbor’s yard.
Whether or not out of similar softheartedness, there arose in the late nineteenth century a wholly new kind of trap, the purpose of which was not to kill the mouse but to compel it perpetually to entertain the householder whose kitchen or bedroom it had invaded. These “toy traps” typically lured a lone mouse onto or into a miniature moving mechanism that then began to turn, roll, or spin, propelled by the frightened creature’s attempts to escape, presumably delighting all onlookers.
William Collier’s 1871 Improvement in Wheels for Animal Traps featured an enclosed wheel-cage that spun on a steel hub as the entrapped mouse jogged within its lower rim. Francis D. Ammen’s Animal-Trap and Toy was a hollow celluloid ball that went careering across the floor with the ever-scurrying mouse inside.
In the most intricate of all toy traps, Patent No. 724,931, A. W. Phillips of Providence, Rhode Island, built a miniature tricycle, four inches long and made of perforated metal. The mouse was first lured into the tricycle’s rectangular body, but “in roaming about to find an exit” ultimately tumbled into the front wheel—a treadmill—wherein it was obliged to run, and so power the little vehicle about the house.
For all their ingenuity, few of these elaborate, mostly hand-made toy traps worked very well. Moreover, in their failure to confront the life-and-death issue, they were neither fish nor fowl, neither toy nor trap. Turn-of-the-century consumers resisted the oblique and overfriendly notion of treating the mouse as a household entertainer. The animal, after all, was a persistent and prolific pest that in a year’s time would eat up four pounds of pantry food, deposit thirty-six thousand droppings, tear up a quilt or two for nesting material, and, in ten to twelve matings, beget itself ninety-nine times. In the eyes of the average American, Mus musculus might not warrant the kind of punishment administered by the stabbing and slashing traps but did need to be rendered, quickly and simply, dead.