Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection

November 11, 2011 — November 4, 2013

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)

The exhibition Inventing a Better Mousetrap features thirty-two models illustrating the wide variety of nineteenth-century patented inventions submitted by inventors from across the United States. All of the models on display are from the collection of Alan Rothschild, whose holdings of 4,000 patent models is the largest private assemblage of American patent models anywhere.

On July 4, 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of a patent office building in Washington, D.C. It was designed to celebrate American invention, technical ingenuity, and the scientific advancements that the patent process represents. In 1840, the Patent Office moved into the south wing of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum's historic main building. All of the models included in the exhibition were originally displayed in cases nine feet high, along with some 200,000 others, in the grand galleries on the third floor of the building, which was completed in 1868. American patent law in the nineteenth century required the submission and public display of a model with each patent application. These scale models in miniature illustrate not only the imaginative fervor of the era but also the amazing craftsmanship required to fabricate these often intricate works of art. Many of the models were constructed by specialized makers in workshops located near the Patent Office.

The models in the exhibition are grouped by category, including domestic life, leisure, and machinery. The models will be complemented by drawings, illustrations, a rare early patent signed by George Washington, and a full-scale model of a ""better"" mousetrap with questions about its advantages and disadvantages over more conventional mousetraps. The installation also will include a case of ""mystery models,"" each accompanied by a clue, which will allow visitors to guess their purpose.

The exhibition is on display in the museum's Allan J. and Reda R. Riley Gallery. Charles Robertson, deputy director emeritus of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and specialist in American decorative arts, is the curator of the exhibition. In 2011, Alan and Ann Rothschild generously donated twenty-five patent models to the museum for its permanent collection.

Want to Know More?
To learn more about the Rothschild patent model collection and the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum, please visit its website. A webcast of a conversation between Alan Rothschild and Charles Robertson in which they discuss nineteenth-century American ingenuity, the patent models that represent the imaginative fever of the era, and the amazing craftsmanship that attracts collectors is available online.

Free Public Programs
Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 7 p.m.; Conversation with Collector Alan Rothschild

In the News

WETA Around Town, April 13, 2012, Janis Goodman, Bill Dunlap, and Robert Aubry Davis discuss the exhibition
The Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2011, Icons, "Trying to Build a Better Mousetrap"
Salon, November 19, 2011, Five-Minute Museum, "Tiny Instruments of American Invention" by Emma Mustich

Go behind-the-scenes with the museum's blog, Eye Level

In this Case: Patent Models, December 24, 2013
Mousetrap 101: Patents and Innovation with Collector Alan Rothschild, December 13, 2011

Related Books

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has published two books that relate to the themes of American ingenuity and the history of the U.S. Patent Office that may interest visitors to this exhibition.Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark ($19.95) details the historical and cultural significance of the museum’s building, including its time as the home of the Patent Office. Written by Robertson and co-published with Scala Publishers, it features more than 80 images, including historic photographs, engravings and other archival materials.The Great American Hall of Wonders: Art, Science, and Invention in the Nineteenth Century ($65/$45 softcover) and the related exhibition examine the nineteenth-century American belief that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation. It explores this belief through works of art, mechanical inventions, and scientific discoveries. The book is written by Claire Perry and co-published with London-based publisher D Giles Limited. Both books are available in the museum store and online.


Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Reda R. and Allan J. Riley; Niro, Haller & Niro; and Harness, Dickey & Pierce generously support the exhibition.

Edgar Stocking, Paper Bag Machine

Paper Bag Machine (1881) from inventor Edgar Stocking, Washington, D.C.