“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” is a phrase that is often inaccurately attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he didn’t actually say those exact words.

What most scholars believe was said by Emerson was “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

Whether Emerson said those exact words, or the aforementioned quote that most people know about mousetraps, the upshot is the same; if you make something innovative then people will flock to you because they want the product.

And it seems throughout American history we’ve strove to “build the better mousetrap” as it were, in an effort to make our lives easier and somehow better. Take for example, the mousetrap. There are thousands of different patents and designs for the mousetrap, but often simpler is better. 

I’ve purchased many different types in my lifetime, but I also seem to settle on the simplest one that is made on the market, the Victor wooden mousetrap. There are very few parts to a Victor trap: a wooden board, a steel spring, a “hasp” that actually swings around and “traps” the mouse, and a little trigger plate that sets the trap off. In addition to a few staples in the wood, the item isn’t even painted. A pack of mousetraps cost maybe $5, but I believe they are worth every penny.

Although there are traps that do not kill mice, or others that use things like an electric shock to kill the mouse, I’ve always found that the simple wooden trap does the job. Some prefer the simple method, but there are hundreds of ways to kill a mouse on the market. It’s ingenuity that gave us the mousetrap we have to day, a simple way to solve a problem. The same can be said about a nearly unrelated topic, fall apples.

One would not realize the vast variety of apple peelers that are available on the market, something that I only discovered after doing a simple internet search on the topic, which came about after a coworker told use she had been given bushel upon bushel of fall apples and was not in the mood to have to peel them all for apple pies.

By coincidence I had purchased an apple peeler months earlier on a whim that was on sale. You insert the apple on some spikes, you turn a handle, and the machine will rotate the apple against a blade, peeling it, then through a blade to core the apple and even slice it. You go from a whole apple to a peeled and sliced apple in seconds.

She gladly borrowed the apple peeler and raved about how good it worked on her apples. And indeed it’s a great invention. If you have a large amount of apples to peel, you need to get one of these devices

“I have to get one of these,” she said, which piqued my interest on the subject of just who invented the darn thing. Surely there had to be some innovation in the past decades that allowed scientists and engineers to figure out the apple-peeling problem and create such a wonderful invention. I was wrong and apple peelers have been around since nearly the beginning of this country’s history.

According to Mike Viney, who collects vintage and antique apple peelers, early colonists to the United States – before it was even the United States –launched apples as a key agricultural product and in the 18th and 19th century they saw a growing need for apples as a winter staple for both food and drink. 

But the apples needed to be processed for winter storage, and paring, coring and cutting apples – enough for winter – was difficult and time consuming. So farmers held “apple bees” where large amounts of people gathered to process the harvested apples, and with that they made simple wooden machines to make the process faster and easier.

Viney said that industrialization and the use of iron during the 19th century caused an explosion of patented creativity; during the time between 1850 and 1890 there were no less than 100 apple peeler patients filed in the United States.

You can see dozens of antique peelers and even see them in operation over at Viney’s website www.appleparermuseum.com. The upshot of this anecdote is I am continually impressed by human’s abilities to solve a problem with innovation, whether it is the simple mousetrap, or the complicated apple peeler(though sometimes we create problems at the same time). I am also impressed that apple peeler isn’t a modern invention, it’s something that my ancestors would have recognized and knew how to use. It’s a reminder that innovation isn’t just in the 21st century. 

Whether it is mousetraps, or apple peelers, the next time you go to slice up an apple, or go to catch a mouse, think of the people before you that may have made it easier for you by solving a simple problem with a machine.