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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
An unexpected discovery by Woodstream in the 1970s, when the firm conducted the first-ever survey of American mouse-trapping behavior, gave new meaning to its low production costs. For the three-year study revealed that when the average modern American catches a mouse, he or she does not remove it and reset the trap but instead drops it—mouse, trap, and all—into the trash.
Immediately following this revelation all Woodstream snap traps began to carry a new marketing label: “Disposable.” By 1980—as the rest of the industry caught on to what Woodstream had learned from its study—virtually every household mousetrap sold in America reminded the consumer that it could and likely should be thrown away after it had caught a single mouse.
But Woodstream’s study contained another surprise. While it showed, as long suspected, that it is almost always the man of the house who sets traps and disposes of dead mice, it also revealed that it is the woman householder who today makes most mousetrap purchases, a development most likely caused by the decline of the hardware store, the domain of the male, where most mousetraps were bought and sold in the past, and by the simultaneous increase in the sale of nonfood items, including mousetraps, in supermarkets, the domain of the female.
Again art imitated life as first Woodstream, then the rest of the industry, grappled with the weighty question of how to feminize mousetrap advertising. Slowly, on packaging, the disembodied but nevertheless clearly male hand shown selecting a trap from a sales rack began to grow more delicate, with the suggestion of pink polish on the longer nails. Graphic renderings of dead mice disappeared. And instead of employing such promotional slogans of the past as “No mouse will take the bait from this trap without losing his head!” mousetrap copywriters began to use a gentler phraseology: “Mouse dies peacefully,” “No mutilation,” and even the curious claim, “No harm to mouse.”
But despite growing insight into the public’s mousetrapbuying behavior, it remains largely a matter of guesswork for the mousetrap industry precisely what traits should be included in any new mousetrap in order to make it sell.
Priced at average retail of seventy cents apiece, glue traps were roughly competitive with and far easier to use than snap traps, and throughout the 1980s their sales soared. It was only after consumers began to realize that whenever they followed their glue trap’s instructions to throw out trap and mouse together, they were, often as not, depositing a still-living, still-struggling, and still-shrieking mouse in the garbage that sales began to level off.
Not, however, before making a 30 percent inroad into the sales of American snap traps. By 1983 Woodstream, despite its corporate revulsion at the glue trap, felt compelled to introduce its own modest line of “glueboards,” while launching a quietly desperate search for a brand-new mousetrap, one that would withstand all future challenges to its supremacy.
It is perhaps not surprising that what the firm came up with after four years of thinking and research as its mousetrap of the future—the Easy-Set—is yet another variation on the snap trap. First put on the market in 1986 and now selling at $1.29 for two, this newest American mousetrap of note contains all the features of the standard snap trap save for a plastic trigger designed for easier setting by the truly awkward and, more dramatically, a wide yellow plastic bait pedal molded to resemble a miniature slice of Swiss cheese and impregnated with “a scent irresistible to mice” so that “this trap never needs messy rebaiting.”
Unlike mousetraps of the past, this anticlimactic mousetrap of tomorrow is not at all the product of a single inventor. Rather, it is a corporate creation dreamed up between Woodstream and its advertising agency. Furthermore, it is seen as something of a travesty among mousetrap traditionalists because in order to achieve its much-touted easier setting, the mechanical genius of Victor’s proud and longstanding 4-Way Action had to be sacrificed.