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Building a Better Society with a Better Mousetrap

Last night, the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in Washington hosted a fascinating book event featuring a presentation by Alan Rothschild, co-author of Inventing a Better Mousetrap: 200 Years of American History in the Amazing World of Patent Models. Rothschild is the collector who, along with his wife Ann, assembled an impressive and valuable collection of thousands of the working models that used to be a required component of any successful patent application. The U.S. Patent Office stopped requiring them in 1870 and started actively discouraging their submission after 1880, but for almost a century, they were an essential part of the careers of the young republic’s ambitious and creative inventors.

The American Art Museum also hosted an exhibit from 2011 to 2013 featuring a selection of Rothschild’s historic models, and parts of the collection have been exhibited at museums and events all over the world. The collection has a special connection to that institution—the American Art Museum, now part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, is housed in the Greek Revival building that was itself the headquarters of the U.S. Patent Office from 1836 to 1932. The venue made for a fitting homecoming for the artifacts, but the fact that the exhibit was mounted by a museum of art rather than history emphasizes that the value of the models themselves partakes of aesthetic as well and practical and historic qualities.

I am always heartened to see museum exhibits that promote the commercial history of the U.S. and the striving individuals who helped build it. It’s even better, though, when curators and historians make clear that a growing economy is an essential part of a vibrant civil society, not something separate from or antagonistic to it. During his remarks last night, Rothschild reflected on the value of his collection by saying that he hoped at least some of the people who toured it would be inspired not just to invent something themselves, but start a business and then build a community around that invention. This aspiration reflects the best traditions of the United States as well as the wisdom embodied in my own alma mater’s Latin motto, Crescit cum commercio civitas, or “Civilization grows with commerce.”