In the mid-1800s, a 250-person “family” began making traps, eventually becoming the biggest trap company in the world, only to later ditch trap making altogether in favor of dinnerware production.
That’s just a small sample of the fascinating Oneida Traps story. Edward Knobloch sent us the piece below on the full history of the company and a new trap exhibit in New York based on his collection.
Metal animal traps made by Oneida were the world’s best for over 70 years. Under the brand names of Newhouse and Victor, about 120 million game traps were manufactured in Sherrill, New York. They paid for a utopia, a silverware industry and a city.
Trap-making began with the Oneida Community (1848-1880) as a famous experiment in harmonious group living. Believing in the possibility of human perfection, this religiously based group of about 250 people lived as one family dedicated to selfless behavior. They had little money at first and traps came to the rescue in their hour of greatest need.
One of their members was Sewell Newhouse, a blacksmith who had learned to hand-forge traps better than anyone else around. When the Oneida Community began making these traps, they improved Newhouse’s design and mechanized the manufacturing process. They named their product Newhouse, and the traps quickly earned the reputation of being the best. “No professional trapper would look at anything else,” a member of the Oneida Community remembered, “and its adoption by the great Hudson Bay Company placed it apparently on a safe footing. There was but one trap in the market and its name was ‘Newhouse.'”
The Oneida Community began making traps in 1852. By the early 1860s, they were making over 200,000 a year and then, in the 1870s, over 400,000. Production on that scale demanded hiring scores of employees and building a factory. Completed in 1864, their trap facility was the largest in the country and it put them in the mainstream of American industrial development.
The Oneida Community sold other products including traveling bags, canned foods and silk thread. But traps were the main money-maker. Traps paid for their communal home, the Mansion House, and made them prosperous.
In 1881, the Oneida Community voted to become a company that would oversee the Community’s successful businesses. Under the name Oneida Community, Ltd., the new enterprise still made Newhouse traps but, in 1886, introduced a less expensive line called Victors, which quickly dominated the market. The Oneida Community had been America’s most successful trap maker. Their successor, Oneida Community, Ltd., became the biggest trap company in the world. In the early 1900s, two of every three traps around the globe came from Oneida’s Hardware Department building in Sherrill.
The Oneida Community, Ltd. expanded from game traps into mouse traps with the acquisition of the Animal Trap Company of Lititz, Pennsylvania, in 1906. Thereafter, the classic wooden snap traps for small rodents became Victors of the Oneida Community, Ltd.
In 1910, Oneida enjoyed record sales of more than seven million traps. That same year, however, traps ceased to be the most profitable product. The company had already begun to phase out traps in favor of high quality silverware — a product with a better future. The changeover required new factories, new technologies and new advertising strategies — all paid for by trap sales.
At the same time, the Oneida Community, Ltd. began giving employees generous pensions, health/welfare benefits, a share of the profit and shares of company ownership. The company built a workers’ community (Sherrill), one politically independent of the company, in which nearly every family owned its own home and enjoyed a high standard of living mostly funded quietly by Oneida Community Ltd. For about 35 years, this was one of America’s least known but most successful experiments in welfare capitalism (when the employer assumes responsibility for the employee’s welfare). This noble venture was launched with money made from traps.
The switch to silverware was successful. As Oneida Community, Ltd. (Oneida Ltd. after 1935) became renowned for its table products, traps faded into the past. Oneida trap-making ended in 1925 when the company sold the last of the business to a group of former employees.
Today, the story of Oneida traps is presented in an exhibit organized by the Oneida Community Mansion House, Sherrill Manufacturing, Inc. and trap collector Edward Knobloch. Nearly 100 examples from Knobloch’s remarkable trap collection are on display in the historic Sherrill factory complex where they were made (near the intersection of Route 5 and Sherrill Road). The exhibit, “Oneida Game Traps, 1852-1925: The Edward J. Knobloch Collection,” is free and open to the public Monday through Thursday, 1 to 4 pm.
You can also visit the beautiful residence of the Oneida Community, today a National Historic Landmark. The Oneida Community Mansion House is open to self-guided tours all-year round ($5). Guided tours are scheduled Wednesdays through Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., on Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information, contact the Oneida Community Mansion House (315-363-0745) or go to its website at www.oneidacommunity.org.
Oneida Traps starting producing traps before the Civil War started. If you are interested in that time period, make sure to check out the “Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms” by John F. Graf. Pick it up for 22 percent off here.