The Endless Quest for a Better Mousetrap – The New Yorker

0 Comments

The Endless Quest for a Better Mousetrap

Inventors have been refining them for centuries. What are they trying to achieve?

Illustration of various fantastical mousetrap designs

Illustration by Tim Enthoven

Some of the oldest known mousetraps were catalogued in the late sixteenth century, by Leonard Mascall, the clerk of the kitchen to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mascall published a series of books on how to keep a fine English home: one explained “howe to plante and graffe all sortes of trees, ” and another, “fishing with hooke & line. ” His final volume, published in 1590, was “a booke of engines and traps to take polcats, buzardes, rattes, mice and all other kindes of vermine and beasts whatsoever, most profitable for all Warriners, and such as delight in this kinde of sport and pastime. ” It contained many mousetraps, two of which resemble what we’d now call snap traps. In a 1992 paper, David Drummond, a zoologist and author associated with several animal-trap histories, noted that Mascall called these “Dragin” traps, perhaps because of their spiked teeth. Sixteenth-century springs, Drummond explained, weren’t powerful enough to deal the lethal blow with a metal bar, as generally happens in today’s snap traps; teeth might have been required to pierce a mouse’s skin, instead.

The United States didn’t begin granting patents until 1790; the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office didn’t exist until years later. Many trap designs have been lost to time. But , according to Joe Dagg, a schoolteacher who studied mousetraps on the side, European settlers in the Midwest may have been peddling predecessors of the modern snap trap by the nineteenth century. In 1847, a man from Brooklyn named Job Johnson patented a snap trap-like mechanism for catching fish. It worked by means of a bait hook that, when grabbed, deployed a second, hidden hook, making a loop; in his patent, Manley noted that the mechanism could be used to catch “any destructive or ferocious animal. ” He later modified it for rats by mounting it on a flat base, against which a jaw snapped closed.

That trap never made it big, but it looks a lot like the snap trap that William Hooker, a farmer from Illinois, patented a half century later, in 1894. “I always felt that the over-all design really is the same thing, ” 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 the writer Jack Hope pointed out, in a 1996 essay on mousetrap history, snap traps were appealing in part because they eliminated the “moral decision” of what to do with a trapped 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 weren’t suspicious of it, and it would work if a mouse put even the slightest pressure on the trigger. The trap was meant to be reused. But by the nineteen-fifties it was being made plus sold so cheaply that will squeamish people could simply throw it away, mouse included—which, it turns out, was what they preferred to do. Jim Stewart, a retired zoo veterinarian and a trap researcher who has about a thousand mousetraps in his personal collection, told me that Hooker’s patent also happened to coincide with advancements in the quality of steel. “Hooker’s design was all about timing, ” he said. Its spring could be genuinely, and effectively, snappy.

Eventually, Hooker’s business merged with a competitor, and the combined company was bought by the Oneida Community, a descendent of the financial arm of a defunct Christian community in upstate New York. The community, which had been organized around the doctrines of free love and “Bible Communism, ” had brought in revenue by making and selling steel traps. The new company decided to focus on silverware and sold its mousetrapping enterprise to three former employees. Now called Woodstream, it still sells mousetraps under the brand name Victor. Wirecutter lists one of the Victor-brand snap traps—“iconic, ” a “classic”—as a top pick.

Today, there are only a few kinds of mousetraps available at a typical hardware store: take traps, glue traps, electric traps, bucket traps, and live-capture traps. And yet, inventors have filed more than forty-five hundred U. S. patents for animal traps, about a thousand of which are specifically related to mice. (Many creators don’t specify the intended targets of their traps. ) Presumably, some mousetrap inventors have been spurred on by a quote widely attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. ” Emerson probably never said exactly this; what he did write down, in a journal, was that the world would beat a path to the door of anyone who sold better corn, wood, boards, pigs, chairs, knives, crucibles, or church organs. There’s nothing uniquely profitable about mousetraps. Still, people keep inventing them, probably because mice are such a widespread nuisance.

Some inventors come up with mousetraps because of firsthand rodent experiences. One company well known for barriers that can hold multiple mice at once, for instance, was founded with a janitor at an Iowa high school who noticed that mice had been eating the students’ lunches. But , just as there are too many mice, there are too many mousetraps. In a 2011 paper, Dagg, the schoolteacher, found that only four per cent from the mousetraps patented in the United States have been commercially produced—and many designs are never even patented. The particular Trap History Museum, outside Columbus, Ohio, houses what is very likely the world’s largest collection of mousetraps. Many of the styles on view there would be prohibitively expensive to mass-produce, given their unwieldy size or reliance on wacky technologies. Others barely work, having apparently been designed to function on only the rarest of occasions. Some designs are dreamy and imaginative; like contemporary art, they are valued for those qualities, not simply because they make it easier to keep the mouse-free home. You wouldn’t pee in a toilet mounted on a gallery wall. Likewise, you wouldn’t get much use out of a capture, patented in 1908, that will affixes a jangly collar to a mouse so that it may annoy other mice till they flee their compatriot for the great outdoors.

Tom Parr, a retired firefighter plus paramedic, maintains the Trap History Museum, which is situated about twenty minutes off the interstate, in the basement of a warehouse built on some farmland. When I visited, on a windy spring day, I got confused: most of the signage on the lot advertised businesses run by Parr’s children, selling pill cannisters and police-car lights. Only a small placard affixed to a side door suggested that there were more than three thousand mousetraps inside. Parr, who is eighty, has been collecting all kinds of animal blocks for decades; his museum significantly expanded several years ago, when Woodstream asked him whether he would, for a while, take charge of its antique traps, including its wooden snap-trap collection, after he’d achieved some renown in the trap-collecting community.

Walking down the stairs into Parr’s museum for the first time, I struggled to make sense of what I has been seeing. Arrangements of animal traps of all sizes—plus stacks of books, framed advertisements, vials of poison, and displays of fur coats and taxidermied woodland creatures—created a maze through a large, gray-carpeted room. The mousetraps, Parr explained, were tucked into a closet-size area of their own, so we headed that way. Even in that smaller space, I couldn’t decide where to fix my eyes. The traps—some neon and plastic, others wood or metal; some curiously enormous, others tinier than a mouse; some still in their original packaging, others grubby with age—were just too numerous. It’s unusual in life to confront several thousand versions of a household object, all arranged side by side.

“I’m trying to think where would be the best place to start, ” Parr said, smiling. He turned in a careful circle to take in all his mousetraps.

We gave up, and commenced looking at the traps in a random order. Parr picked up the Kitty Gotcha, a colorful mid-century snap trap shaped like a cat, which now goes for more than a hundred dollars online. (The traps were cute but didn’t sell well when they hit the market—buyers preferred something they could just throw out. ) The Bing Crosby Trip-Trap , released around the same time, was a metal design produced with money from the singer, who invested in various ventures, including early audio and video recording . (Stewart, the historian plus collector, described the Trip-Trap as “horrible”—“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 get the mice in there, and they whack ’em. ”

I pointed to two similar wooden snap traps, one made just a little later than the other. “What would make this one an advancement over this one? ” I asked.

“Well, probably nothing, ” Parr said, laughing.

Mousetraps, it seemed to me, were a bit of an enigma. People had invented so many of them, but , so long as they worked, they were all essentially the same. Why go to the trouble when just a few kinds of traps would have sufficed?

The earliest mousetraps were not necessarily lethal. One version, so old that it could have been used by the ancient Egyptians living under King Tut, trapped a mouse in some pottery; when the mouse pulled on a baited string, the particular pot’s door closed. Since then, options have proliferated. To keep track of them all, Drummond uses two categories of non-lethal barriers (single and multi-catch) and three categories of lethal blocks (snap, choker, and jaw), plus a “miscellaneous” category in order to account for traps that work by unusual means, such as “crushing, spearing, exploding, and electrocuting. ” The patent office is more detail-oriented, describing twenty-three ways of trapping animals: a trap might employ “rotating cylinders or turnstiles, ” or contain an apparatus for “throwing the animal to a collecting chamber. ” Designers have often combined approaches. In the fifteen-hundreds, English homekeepers used a “mill to take mice, ” which was shaped like a pinwheel and placed so that it hung off the table; when a mouse stepped on board, the wheel flipped it into a bucket below, which could be filled with water.

People have caught mice using canning jars fitted with interior prongs that narrow, so a mouse is funnelled forward and can’t retreat. (These, according to Parr, work remarkably well. ) They have used guillotine-style traps, which drop a blade or metal bar on a mouse’s neck. (None were ever commercially successful; they were “too complicated, ” Stewart told me. “And potentially dangerous. ”) In 1876, a Nebraska character patented a trap later advertised as the Delusion, which tricks a mouse into trapping itself: the animal is lured into an initial chamber by some cheese or even cake, then follows light around a corner, which leads not to an exit but to another chamber. In the early twentieth century, people amused themselves with mouse-mobile traps, in which captured mice zoom a little car around the floor simply by running atop a set of wheels. (The company folded after two years, Stewart said: the mice kept getting stuck in the traps’ workings. ) This ludic, and sometimes cruel, tradition continues today. In 2019, a freelance inventor sent the YouTube mousetrap reviewer Shawn Woods a trap that worked by tempting a mouse into the barrel of a miniature propane-powered cannon. When the mouse tripped an infrared beam, it could be shot into a bucket at an adjustable velocity.

Parr was born in 1942, plus grew up trapping muskrats and raccoons. He worked as a firefighter, then started a good emergency-services-equipment business with his wife, Jane, while trying to trap enough mink to make her a fur coat. This didn’t occur to him to see his traps as a collection until the nineteen-eighties, when he attended a local trappers’ meetup. It turned out that there was a community of trap collectors, only some of whom were practicing trappers; at the meetup, these people followed him around, asking whether they could buy his traps. For forty dollars each, he sold all but one, and used the money to start his own collection.

He bought traps for moose, deer, coyotes, beavers, foxes, moles, and bears, and traps for beetles, flies, mosquitos, and spiders. He sought out traps with regard to mice in particular because they were small, and more likely to be weird. He bought plastic Chinese mousetraps and wooden ones from the Civil War era, along with advertisements and display boxes, mouse-shaped pin cushions, decorative mouse figurines, plus mouse-trap-themed games. By 1991, he’d become the president of the North American Trap Collectors Association, and had moved his hoard to the warehouse and turned it into a museum.

It’s strange to glance between Parr’s mousetraps and his smiling porcelain mouse figurines. A major problem with mousetrapping is that some people like rodents. Drummond, in addition to his histories of trapping, wrote the volume called “A Celebration of Mice”; Woods, the particular YouTube reviewer, keeps rats as pets and regards them as “cast members” in his videos. (He utilizes his pet mice to test traps that don’t hurt, and that provide snacks and fun. ) Small children adore Mickey, Minnie, and Angelina Ballerina. When I was a kid, my favorite book was “ If You Give a Mouse a Cookie . ” I asked my parents for a pet mouse and had been frustrated when they declined; this wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I better inhabited their point of view. Mice can still be cute to apartment dwellers, but they are often annoying, inconvenient, and gross, fuelling arguments among roommates about whose habits are nastier. They’re disliked by health inspectors because, even though the animals are obsessed with self-grooming, their poop can contain bacteria and viruses, including salmonella and hantavirus, and their own fur can harbor fleas and ticks, which can spread the bubonic plague plus Lyme. According to the Centers regarding Disease Control and Prevention, in the last three decades or so, around thirty people contract hantavirus each year; on average, only seven people catch the bubonic plague annually. We’re evolutionarily programmed, however , to recoil from creatures that present a risk of disease. The upshot is that, if you don’t hunt, a mouse may be the smartest, most sympathetic creature you’ll ever set out to kill.

Recently, We spent part of a summer living by myself in an old house in Vermont. The house had belonged to my grandparents and was now possessed by their children; it still retained much of its original décor—including a big tub in a bathroom with a crucifix outside the door. When I arrived, no one had used the tub in decades. It had been stained brown by deer mice, who did use it. Day after day, the tiny, jumpy little animals came up through the drain and showed their soft, white bellies. Sometimes they will went back down straight away. More often they hurled themselves as high up the tub’s sides as they could before falling back with a plop. There was always at least one mouse nestled in the tub’s porcelain curves, looking cozy and content. The tub, I thought, was a kind of humane mousetrap.

At first, I utilized a pot to scoop the mice out of the tub and chauffeur them to the woods. They blinked in the sun and looked not long for this world. Inside, they kept appearing. Unsure of my next steps, I went on to perform other things while the mice frolicked in the bathtub. I did not want to kill them. They were adorable. Maybe, I thought, they could just have the tub; they seemed to be doing fine inside, and perhaps could access supplies via the drain. One morning, though, I looked inside of. The mice had got hungry, and had chosen another mouse for breakfast. All that was left was a pink spine and some ears. Two mice gazed up at me, and in their sweet, sticky faces I seemed to see a pronouncement: “This is what happens when you don’t make choices. ” I procured a pot and resumed providing taxi service for the rodents, the cannibals included.

When not in use, I like mousetraps well enough. In use, less so; I don’t like the idea of hurting animals. Looking at a few trap designs, I find it difficult not to wonder whether people have set out intentionally to punish mice for being so indestructible. (Historically, Stewart said, rat traps have often been even meaner. ) It’s possible to group mousetraps not by their technological approach but by their degree of viciousness. In the nineteen-eighties, it became popular to capture mice with glue traps, which destroy a mouse by inviting it to chew off its own legs while trying to escape, or to thrash until it dies of hunger, thirst, or exhaustion. Shawn Woods, the YouTube capture reviewer, once used an 1869 patent to build the trap that harpoons its victim: the trap, which is shaped like a mouse, has a tongue-like lever that, when tripped, shoots spears out of the trap’s eyes and into the real mouse’s skull. Forest, who tests many traps and tries to choose types that kill quickly, set the trap up inside a friend’s barn and aimed a camera at it; he used a paper-towel tube to shield viewers from the gore.

Of course , many traps are both fun and relatively humane. In Parr’s basement museum, I actually asked him to show me their weirdest mousetraps. “Well, there sure are a lot of strange ones, ” he said, trying to choose before settling on one in the middle of the room. About fifteen years ago, the crew of the History Channel program “Modern Marvels” had visited Parr and asked him to demonstrate this trap—a wooden Rube Goldberg-style machine that he’d bought off a good Iowan. I watched as he showed me how it’s supposed to work: a snap snare catches a single mouse, and this gets a marble rolling, which in turn triggers a series of events that culminates in the lighting of a candle, alerting the household to the trap’s success. Parr had tried to get it going for the History Channel but couldn’t. Well, he’d told the particular producers, that’s why there’s only one; it doesn’t work.

These days, the drive within the mousetrap marketplace isn’t toward whimsy but forgetability. Having started with the Out-of-Sight, Woodstream’s modern barriers have names like Easy Set and Safe-Set. I called Woodstream’s vice-president associated with rodent control, Boris Bajlovic, to ask him what the company looks for in a mousetrap design. “Innovation at the Victor brand is about solving consumer problems, ” he stated. “Our traps are reliable, effective, and safe. ” Over the past few decades, Bajlovic told me, he has reviewed several dozen freelance proposals for new trap designs. Victor has acquired two of them, both aimed at completely concealing the eliminate from the user. One of the blocks, Clean-Kill, is still on the market, and offers what’s described as a “no-see, no-touch experience. ” (The other trap, which had a hermetic seal, was discontinued because it was too expensive. ) My parents later installed Clean-Kill-like traps in the house in Vermont. Unfortunately, since they don’t live there full time, they checked the devices infrequently, noticing the capture only when the particular traps began to stink. Bajlovic told me that the hottest new mousetraps are smart devices, which send an alert to your phone when a mouse is captured, sparing you the experience of physically checking a trap—modern versions of the light-bulb contraption that Parr had shown me.

I asked John Griffin, of the Humane Society, for help in making a better mousetrap choice. Griffin works on managing relationships between people plus wild animals; when I told your pet it bothered me that I couldn’t find a truly harmless mousetrap, he confirmed that there really isn’t a perfectly humane way to evict a mouse. The choices, he mentioned, exist on a spectrum of humaneness, with glue traps and poisons being especially inhumane, lethal-but-quick snap barriers sitting somewhere in the middle, and single-catch live traps at the kinder end. (Multi-catch live traps exist but , as in my bathtub, the mice are liable to eat one another. ) Griffin noted that will single-catch live traps are only humane if you swiftly transport the mice to a nearby wooded area; trapped rats can die of stress and dehydration within hours. Griffin can’t think of any studies on how well mice fare after they’ve already been relocated. Presumably they are likely to be confused, and, depending on their particular species, their lives might be shorter than they’d have been in your house, had they been left to their business right now there. Looking back on my summer in Vermont, We wondered whether I could’ve dropped mine off having a shelter of some kind, and perhaps some peanut butter.

One point that you might keep in mind, Griffin said, is that mice probably are living or have lived in your home, even if you haven’t seen them. Mice are usually everywhere. Although there are some solid reasons for getting rid of them—parasites, germs, viruses—the mice are there now, and you haven’t become sick. It’s only when people become aware of mice that they buy mousetraps. And yet being alive is a daily exercise in risk tolerance. Thanks in part to the aggressive marketing of mousetraps, our tolerance for mice-related threats is low. Our tolerance for the risks involved in eating spinach (salmonella), or hiking (ticks), is considerably higher.

The mice are already here. Even so, you can try to avoid the whole issue by preventing them through getting into your home in the first place. Woodstream sells repellents. My parents plugged their bathtub. Still, my dad recently came upon a pair of rodents relaxing in the living room, snuggled on the white armchair as if recovering from a party. My parents, basically giving up on mousetraps, have conceded that the house will always have mice, and concluded that this is fine. If you are determined not to have rodent houseguests, though, you can get creative using the job. Representatives from PETA suggested that I try putting strobe lights in my attic: mice don’t like them.

Before I actually left, Parr took me on the tour of his home, which is just twenty feet from the warehouse. Most of the rooms double as galleries for his other collectibles. Parr’s kitchen table is unusable for dining, having been overcome by a collection of antique potbelly stoves. Other surfaces house his wife’s strawberry collectibles—strawberry-shaped candles, birdhouses, saltshakers, plus potholders. She died in 2012, of ovarian cancer, yet Parr has kept all of them as they were. He is the homebody who enjoys a daily lunch at the same local chain restaurant, where Wednesday is always pie day, and Hallmark movies in the evenings. The particular crowdedness of his home doesn’t reflect disorganization; the milk in his fridge is definitely turned so that the label faces outward. He finds it strange that some collectors put their traps in boxes, because why wouldn’t you want to look at what you’ve accumulated? What would be the point of having something just to have it? Everything Parr has found in his life is out where he can see it.

Over lunch at the chain restaurant, Parr and I tried to work out what the point of collecting might be. Maybe it’s an investment; the traps have appreciated, and together, Parr suspects, they are worth close to a hundred thousand dollars. Maybe accumulation has always dazzled him—he didn’t have much growing up. Maybe it’s that mousetraps have wonky histories to explore. Or Parr’s mind might be made for objects like mousetraps, and for the finding and arranging of them; they bring him peace, in the way that an inventor’s mind finds peace while creating. Parr and I came up with no catch-all answer and left it at that.

His favorite thing these days is to give tours of the art gallery to children, who are wide-eyed over the ingenuity on display. None of Parr’s kids or grandkids have any interest at all in traps. Although this individual wants his family in order to inherit his collection plus hopes that they might keep the museum running, he also foresees that it will close when he dies. When I met with Parr’s son, who sells lights intended for emergency vehicles, he informed me that, yes, it’s difficult to talk about, but , while some cherished things might stay in the family, much of the lot will be divided among museums and collectors.

In his 2005 book on mousetrap history, Drummond suggested that people keep trying to invent better mousetraps because, even though existing ones work, “some users are still unable to use them efficiently. ” He ends their book “on a provocative note: perhaps it is the user and not the mouse capture that should now be improved. ” Human nature, not technical inadequacy, probably drives mousetrap invention. For most of us, trapping, killing, and disposing of mice will be irredeemably unpleasant; if that’s the case, then Parr’s museum testifies to our persistent wish to find a better way of doing something we don’t want to do.

Before I left, I asked Parr for some advice: What kind of snare should I use? He told me that he doesn’t often use mousetraps. The need for them has never been pressing, even though he lives on farmland. Snap blocks, in his opinion, are generally the best trap. What he wouldn’t use is a glue trap. He doesn’t keep them in his museum, he said. This individual finds them distasteful, boring, and unimaginative.   ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *