The never ending search for a better mousetrap

Some of the oldest known mousetraps were cataloged in the late sixteenth century by Leonard Mascall, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen clerk. Mascall published a series of books on how to maintain a fine English home: one explained “how to plant and scratch all kinds of trees” and another “hook-and-line fishing”. Its final volume, published in 1590, was “a book of machines and traps for catching polcats, poirces, rattes, mice, and all other kinds of vermin and beasts whatsoever, very lucrative to all Warriors, and such as to delight in this kind of sport and pastime.” It contained many mousetraps, two of which resemble what we would now call snap traps.In a 1992 article, David Drummond, a zoologist and author of several stories 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 deliver a lethal blow with a metal rod, as is generally the case in snap traps today; the teeth may have been needed to pierce the skin of a rat instead.

The United States only began granting patents in 1790; the United States Patent and Trademark Office didn’t exist until years later. Many trap designs have been lost over time. But, according to Joe Dagg, a teacher who studied mousetraps, European settlers in the Midwest may have sold the predecessors of the modern snaptrap in the 19th century. In 1847, a Brooklyn man named Job Johnson patented a snap trap-like mechanism for catching fish. It worked by means of a bait hook which, when caught, unfurled a second hidden hook, forming a noose; in his patent, Johnson noted that the mechanism could be used to capture “any destructive or ferocious animal”. He later modified it for mice by mounting it on a flat base, against which it snapped a jaw.

That trap never got big, but it looks a lot like the snap trap that 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 mousetrap, he said.As writer Jack Hope pointed out in a 1996 essay on the history of mousetraps, snap traps were attractive in part because they eliminated “moral decision” of what to do with a trapped rat: “the trapped rat was already dead.” Hooker’s design, marketed as the “Out O’ Sight” trap, was simple and small: guests could ignore it, the animals could not they were suspicious of it and it would work if a rat pulled even the slightest pull on the trigger. The trap had to be reused. But by the 1950s it was being manufactured and sold so cheaply that p Picky folks could just throw it away, including the mouse, which, apparently, was what they preferred to do. Jim Stewart, a retired zoo veterinarian and trap researcher who has about a thousand mousetraps in his personal collection, told me that Hooker’s patent also coincided with advances in steel quality. “Hooker’s design was all about timing,” he said. His spring could be really, really snappy.

Eventually, Hooker’s business merged with a competitor, and the combined company was purchased by the Oneida Community, a descendant of the finance arm of a defunct Christian community in upstate New York. The community, which had been organized around the doctrines of free love and “biblical communism,” had made an 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 mousetraps under the Victor brand name. Wirecutter lists one of Victor’s brand snap traps – “iconic”, a “classic” – as the best choice.

Today, there are only a few types of mousetraps available in a typical hardware store: snap traps, glue traps, electric traps, bucket traps, and live traps. Still, the inventors have filed more than forty-five hundred US patents for animal traps, about a thousand of which are specifically related to mice. (Many inventors do not specify the intended goals of their traps.) Supposedly, some mousetrap inventors were spurred on by a quote widely attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat its way to yours.” brings .” Emerson probably never said exactly that; what he did write, in a diary, was that the world would open the way to the door of anyone who sold better corn, wood, planks, hogs, chairs, knives, crucibles, or church organs. There’s nothing particularly profitable about mousetraps, but people keep inventing them, probably because mice are such a widespread nuisance.

Some inventors devise mousetraps due to firsthand rodent experiences. One company well known for traps that can hold multiple mice at once, for example, was founded by an Iowa high school janitor who noticed the mice were eating student lunches. But, just like there are too many mice, there are too many mousetraps. In a 2011 article, Dagg the teacher found that only four percent of patented mousetraps in the United States were commercially produced, and many designs were never even patented. The Trap History Museum, outside of Columbus, Ohio, houses what is quite possibly the world’s largest collection of mousetraps. Many of the designs on display would be prohibitively expensive to mass-produce, given their unwieldy size or reliance on outlandish technologies. Others barely work, seemingly designed to only work on the rarest of occasions. Some designs are dreamy and imaginative; like contemporary art, they’re prized for those qualities, not because they make it easier to maintain a rat-free home. You wouldn’t pee in a toilet mounted on a gallery wall. Similarly, you wouldn’t need much for a trap, patented in 1908, that attaches a jingle collar to a rat so as to annoy other rats until they flee their compatriot for the great outdoors.

Tom Parr, a retired firefighter and paramedic, runs the Trap History Museum, which is located about twenty minutes off the highway, in the basement of a warehouse built on farmland. When I visited, on a blustery spring day, I was confused: Most of the signage on the lot advertised businesses run by Parr’s sons, selling pill boxes and police car lights. Only a small sign posted on a side door suggested that more than three thousand mousetraps were inside. Parr, who is eighty years old, has been collecting all kinds of animal traps for decades; His museum expanded significantly several years ago when Woodstream asked him if, for a while, he would take over his antique traps, including his collection of wooden snap traps, after they achieved some fame in the community of trap collectors.

Descending the stairs into Parr’s museum for the first time, I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. Arrangements of animal traps of all sizes — plus piles of books, framed advertisements, vials of poison, and displays of furs and stuffed woodland creatures — created a maze across a large gray-carpeted room. The mousetraps, Parr explained, were hidden in an area the size of a closet, so we headed that way. Even in that smaller space, I couldn’t decide where to fix my eyes. The traps: some in neon and plastic, others in wood or metal; some curiously huge, some smaller than a mouse; some still in their original packaging, some dirty from age, there were simply too many. It is unusual in life to be confronted with several thousand versions of a household object, all arranged side by side.

“I’m trying to think of where would be the best place to start,” Parr said, smiling. She spun around in a careful circle to get all of her mousetraps.

We gave up and started going through traps in random order. Parr collected the Kitty Gotcha, a colorful mid-century snap trap shaped like a cat, which now costs more than a hundred dollars online. (The traps were nice but didn’t sell well when they hit the market—buyers wanted something they could just throw away.) The Bing Crosby Trip-Trap, released around the same time, was a metal design made with the money of the singer , who invested in various ventures, including the first audio and video recordings. (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 snap traps. “They bring rats in there and beat them.”

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