October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
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.
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.
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?
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.
Into this vacuum came two straightforward and solid mousetraps: the “choker” (available in one-hole, two-hole, four-hole, and six-hole versions) and the “snap trap.” The choker, a derivative of earlier beheaders, lured the mouse into poking its head into a small, round hole, whereupon a spring-powered wire noose closed upon its neck. This was a wonderfully simple and effective machine and is still manufactured and sold in limited numbers today by, among others, the Woodstream Corporation.
But from the moment it appeared on the market in 1899, the John Mast snap trap was a tour de force in American mousetrapping. If a mouse but poked at the delicate bait pedal, the striker descended powerfully and quickly—indeed, in three milliseconds. Unlike enclosure traps that placed the moral decision of mouse drowning versus mouse releasing upon the shoulders of the consumer, the snaptrapped mouse was already dead when the householder arrived on the scene. And with its few moving parts stapled inexpensively atop a slim rectangle of pine, the snap trap was far easier to build than the choker and, at five cents apiece (in 1900), sold for one-fourth the price.
Mast’s mousetrap was emblematic of American enterprise. Before he began making it, he manufactured the curious combination of coleslaw, wooden fishing lures, and popcorn in his three-story brick factory in Lititz. In such an establishment mice were ever present, and in the best tradition of self-help John Mast did something about it. He studied existing mousetrap patents, borrowed extensively from five or six of them, and in October 1899 filed his own patent application. He then aggressively proceeded to manufacture and market the snap trap, which not only solved his own problems but answered the mouse-trapping dreams of American householders, even before his U.S. patent was officially granted in 1903.
It is unclear why the earlier patented snap traps of inventors such as C. B. Trumble (No. 481,707, in 1892) and N. R. Streeter and J. Anstice (No. 595,741, in 1897) did not beat Mast’s to the marketplace. But what Mast had going for him that most amateur inventors did not was an already existing factory and a crude kind of assembly line with workers who could readily be taken away from cabbage shredding and put into wire bending.
And so mousetrap invention proceeded undiminished into the twentieth century. Enchanted with the recently harnessed force of electricity, a dozen or more inventors quickly adapted it to their purposes. In 1911 A. A. Low, from Horseshoe, New York, and others collaborated to create Electrocuting Trap (Patent No. 1,001,400), which despite its unpretentious name turned out to be the most complex household mousetrap ever built.
No. 1,001,400 was a repeat killer, battery-powered, built in the form of a two-story house, twelve inches square and fourteen inches high, with three 17-step stairways by which victims were led up to the roof. There, reaching for the routine cube of cheese, bread, or meat, the mice were electrocuted one after another between two contacts and then dropped through a trap door into a water-filled zinclined container on the first floor.
The need for the spacious houselike construction was to enclose not only the dead mouse container but several feet of electrical wire, a six-volt battery, a host of coils, electrodes, mercury switches, and electromagnets and, in the detailed genius of the trap, an electrified register to tell the householder at a glance just how many dead he had within the little house at any given moment.
It stretches credibility to suppose that the inventors A. A. Low and partners believed their Electrocuting Trap would ever sell. Even in 1911 the man-hours and material required to build such an excessive device would have been expensive. Far more likely, each time the high-spirited and electrically sophisticated inventors convened to perfect their creation they could not refrain from adding just one more circuit breaker, one more set of electrodes. No manufacturer ever bought the patent rights to Electrocuting Trap.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite its drawbacks, though, the new trap works. According to Wood-stream, field trials conducted at, among other places, the nearby let Age Swine Farm, have found that it catches 18 percent more mice than the traditional snap trap. More telling, if the company’s claims can be believed, household sales of the Easy-Set have grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade and are projected to exceed those of the John Mast snap trap by the year 2001.
But what does this portend for the future of mousetrap invention and, more important, for the future of American mousetrap inventors? Likely nothing. As we already know, no fewer mousetraps are being patented every year since the 1986 advent of Woodstream’s Easy-Set than there were in 1954 or 1928 or 1872. The quiet, inconspicuous souls who continue to ply the mousetrap inventor’s trade do so with a conviction and determination unknown to most of us, and they are not about to be deterred by something as ephemeral as the market success of an Easy-Set.
Which is as it should be. And, assuming for the moment that Emerson said and meant precisely what most mousetrap inventors believe he said and meant, it is clear that the philosopher had the welfare of the everyday American in mind. He did not say, after all, “Build a better reciprocating steam engine, and the world will beat a path to your door.” He prescribed instead a purely populist and accessible invention that any of us could create, that would fill our evening hours with engaging activity, and that would surely help keep mischief off the streets.