The endless search for a better mousetrap

Some of the oldest known mousetraps were cataloged in the late sixteenth century by Leonard Mascall, the kitchen servant to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mascall published a series of books on how to keep a nice English home: one explained “how to plant and graft trees of all kinds,” and another, “fish with hooke & line.” His last volume, published in 1590, was “a book of engines and traps to catch polcats, buzardes, rattes, mice, and all other kinds of vermin and beasts, most profitable to all Warriners, and as delight in this kind of sport.” and pastime.” It contained many mouse traps, two of which resembled what we would now call click traps. In a 1992 paper, David Drummond, a zoologist and author of several histories of animal traps, noted that Mascall called these traps “Dragin”, perhaps because of their pointed teeth. Sixteenth-century springs, Drummond explained, were not powerful enough to deal a killing blow with a metal rod, as usually happens in today’s snap traps; instead, teeth may have been needed to pierce a mouse’s skin.

The United States did not begin granting patents until 1790; the US Patent and Trademark Office did not exist until years later. Many trap designs have been lost over time. But according to Joe Dagg, a schoolteacher who casually studied mouse traps, European settlers in the Midwest in the 1800s might have peddled the forerunners of the modern click trap. In 1847, a Brooklyn man named Job Johnson patented a click-trap-like mechanism for catching fish. It worked by way of a baited hook which, when grabbed, deployed a second, hidden hook and made a loop; in his patent, Johnson noted that the mechanism could be used to capture “any destructive or ferocious animal”. He later adapted it for rats by mounting it on a flat base, against which a jaw slammed shut.

That trap never made it big, but it looks a lot like the click trap William Hooker, an Illinois farmer, patented half a century later, in 1894. Rick Cicciarelli, a real estate agent and antique collector in Ithaca, New York, who once owned one of two known examples of Johnson’s rat trap, said. As writer Jack Hope noted, in a 1996 essay on the history of mouse traps, snaptraps were attractive in part because they eliminated the “moral decision” of what to do with a captured mouse: “the snaptrapped mouse was already dead.” Hooker’s design, marketed as the “Out O’ Sight” trap, was simple and small: houseguests could overlook it, animals were not suspicious of it, and it would work if a mouse applied even the slightest pressure on the trigger. The trap was intended to be reused. But by the 1950s, made it and sold it so cheaply that downhearted people could just throw it away, including the mouse—which, as it turned out, was the sweetest thing they did.Jim Stewart, a retired zoo vet and trap researcher who has about a thousand mousetraps in his personal collection, told me that Hooker’s patent also happened to coincide with advances in the quality of steel. “Hooker’s design was all about timing,” he said. The feather can be really and effectively snappy.

Eventually, Hooker’s company merged with a competitor and the combined company was purchased by the Oneida Community, a descendant of the financial arm of a defunct Christian community in upstate New York. The community, organized around the doctrines of free love and “biblical communism,” had generated income by making and selling steel traps. The new company decided to focus on silverware and sold its mousetrap business to three former employees. Now called Woodstream, it still sells mouse traps under the Victor brand name. Wirecutter lists one of the Victor brand snaptraps – “iconic,” a “classic” – as a top pick.

Today, only a few types of mouse traps are available at a typical hardware store: snap traps, glue traps, electric traps, bucket traps, and live capture traps. And yet inventors have applied for more than forty-five hundred US patents for animal traps, about a thousand of which relate specifically to mice. (Many inventors do not specify the intended purposes of their traps.) Supposedly, some mousetrap inventors were spurred on by a quote widely credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Emerson probably never said this exactly, what he did write in a diary was that the world would pave a path to the door of anyone who sold better corn, lumber, planks, pigs, chairs, knives, crucibles, or church organs. nothing uniquely profitable about mouse traps, yet people keep inventing them, probably because mice are such a widespread nuisance.

Some inventors come up with mousetraps because of firsthand experience with rodents. For example, a company known for traps that can trap several mice at once was founded by a janitor at an Iowa high school who noticed mice eating students’ lunches. But just as there are too many mice, there are also too many mousetraps. In a 2011 paper, Dagg, the schoolteacher, found that only four percent of mousetraps patented in the United States have been commercially produced — and many designs have never even been patented. The Trap History Museum, outside of Columbus, Ohio, is home to probably the largest collection of mouse traps in the world. Many of the designs on display there would be prohibitively expensive to mass-produce given their unwieldy size or reliance on crazy technologies. Others barely work, apparently designed to function only in the rarest of cases. Some designs are dreamy and imaginative; like contemporary art, they are valued for those qualities, not because they make it easier to keep a mouse-free home. You wouldn’t pee in a toilet mounted on a gallery wall. Likewise, you wouldn’t get much benefit from a trap, patented in 1908, that attaches a jingling collar to a mouse so that it will annoy other mice until they flee their compatriot into the great outdoors.

Tom Parr, a retired firefighter and paramedic, maintains the Trap History Museum, located about twenty minutes from the highway, in the basement of a warehouse built on a piece of farmland. When I visited on a windy spring day, I got confused: Most of the signage on the property advertised businesses run by Parr’s children, selling pill boxes and police car bulbs. Only a small sign on a side door suggested that there were more than three thousand mousetraps inside. Parr, who is eighty, has been collecting all kinds of animal traps for decades; his museum expanded considerably several years ago, when Woodstream asked him if he would take charge of the antique traps, including the wooden snap-trap collection, for a while after gaining some notoriety in the trap-collecting community.

When I first walked down the stairs to Parr’s museum, I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. Displays of animal traps of all shapes and sizes—plus stacks of books, framed advertisements, vials of poison, and displays of fur coats and stuffed woodland creatures—mazed through a large, gray-carpeted room. The mousetraps, Parr explained, were tucked away in their own closet-sized space, so we headed that way. Even in that smaller space, I couldn’t decide where to put my eyes. The traps – some neon and plastic, others wooden or metal; some curiously huge, others smaller than a mouse; some still in their original packaging, others grubby with age – there were just too many of them. It is unusual in life to confront several thousand versions of a household object, all arranged side by side.

“I’m trying to figure out where to start,” Parr said, smiling. He turned carefully in a circle to take in all his mousetraps.

We gave up and started looking at the traps in random order. Parr picked up the Kitty Gotcha, a colorful mid-century trap in the shape of a cat that now retails online for over a hundred dollars. (The traps were cute, but didn’t sell well when they hit the market — buyers preferred something they could just throw away.) The Bing Crosby Trip-Trap, released around the same time, was a metal design produced with money from the singer, who invested in several ventures, including early audio and video recording. (Stewart, the historian and collector, described the Trip-Trap as “awful” – “You can’t even set the thing!”)

“They all do pretty much the same thing,” Parr said, as I looked at a display of several dozen wooden click traps. “They get the mice in and beat them.”

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