A Better Mousetrap


LATER ELECTRIC MOUSETRAPS, MARKETED DURING THE Depression of the 1930s, were stark in design and wisely featured economy in their advertisements: “Your Electrocuter can kill hundreds of mice for a penny’s worth of electricity!” But an aesthetic flaw of all electrocuting traps was that the body of the circuit-completing mouse could simmer indefinitely between the electrodes. And of course whatever was deadly to mice around the home was potentially dangerous to one’s child, cat, canary, or spouse.

For similar reasons, none of the potent forces or creative technologies of the late twentieth century have proved either effective or specific enough for mouse control. Laser beams, capable of cutting through concrete or steel, are excessive for creatures made of flesh and blood. Sonar devices, now selling at thirty dollars retail and claiming to repel both mice and insects, are totally ineffective at the low sound frequencies they are required by law to use. And computerized systems employed by a few granary and factory owners to monitor hundreds of rodent traps are inappropriate to the modest needs of homeowners, who buy 90 to 95 percent of the mousetraps sold in the United States.

So for the most part, twentieth-century mousetrap inventors have been compelled to recycle the few tried-and-true methods of mouse killing. The great majority of the resulting traps—including strikers powered by compressed gas, impalers powered by gunpowder—have proved more complex than the originals that predestined their failure in the market place. But, inevitably, a segment of the mousetrap-creating community has taken a lesson from the mechanical simplicity of the John Mast snap trap.

AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT SINCE 1900 THERE HAVE been at least a half-dozen snap-trap imitations and derivatives on the market: snap traps made of plastic, snap traps with bungee cords attached (to snatch both mouse and trap into the air, once sprung), even snap traps mounted with mirrors to deceive the mouse into believing a rival was about to devour the bait. And once the Mast snap-trap patent expired in 1920, there was an outpouring of traps produced by manufacturers that appeared identical to the original. Marketed under such brand names as Rival, Defiant, Triumph, Joker (“The joke is on the mouse that messes around the business end of this outfit!”), Ejector, Pearl, Acme, O.K., Tru-Test, Stand-by, Short Stop, Sure-Catch, Sure-Death, Exterminator, and the Good Housekeeper’s Mousetrap, none of these competitors have managed to make a dent in the Victor’s sales. “Just look at your other mousetraps,” an enthusiastic Woodstream secretary told me. “Not one of them has 4-Way Action! And they’re junky. First your staples get loose. Then your striker gets loose—and then your mouse gets away!”

Your staples and 4-Way Action are not the whole story behind Victor’s success. But they are surely a large part of it, I was persuaded one afternoon by Joseph Bumsted, in his office at Front and Locust streets, in the very same building where John Mast used to shred coleslaw. On his glasstopped desk, Bumsted set two snap traps—a Victor and a What-A-Catch, a Taiwanese competitor I had brought in—then probed and poked at their bait pedals with a pencil. The Taiwanese trap, he demonstrated convincingly, would not “fire” unless the mouse pressed directly down on the pedal, whereas the Victor fired whether the pedal was jiggled down, up, left, or right. This is the essence of Victor’s long-standing advertising claim of 4-Way Action, made possible by a subtle nub of metal on the bait pedal that readily releases first the trigger rod, then the striker, in the blink of an eye.

Bumsted picked up my Taiwanese trap and easily, happily began to tear it apart with his hands, pulling its spring, striker, bait pedal, and trigger rod off their wooden base or “mouseboard” by uprooting their staples. Not to disparage a competitor’s product, he said, but he could tell from this easy dismantling that What-A-Catch’s staples would likely start to pull out after only twenty or thirty “dry snaps.” Victor’s would not, because each of its four staples protrudes all the way through the wooden base and is firmly crimped over, one-sixteenth of an inch, beneath.

When manufacturers found that women buy most traps, slogans got gentler: “Mouse dies peacefully.”

I learned, furthermore, that every one of Woodstream’s competitors employs at least some hand labor in constructing their traps, which makes for irregularity in the product, whereas in Lititz—top secret and envy of the industry (no photos, please!)—Woodstream, after decades of experience, has put together the world’s only fully automated snap-trap assembly line. Blank mouseboards and copper-coated strands of steel feed in one end, and out the other, minutes later, come finished snap traps all perfect and identical, packaged and emblazoned with a red v .

What the automation also ensures is that Woodstream can produce more snap traps than anyone else and can sell them even less expensively (two for ninety-nine cents, average retail) than mousetrap makers in South America and Southeast Asia, where wage rates are vastly lower.