"Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door." (All over the net.)However, the closest quote of him that has ever been published in print goes:
"If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods." (Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol 8, pp. 528-529. Constable & Co., London, 1909, available at archive.org.)Where, then, does the saying come from? Burton Stevenson (1934. The mouse trap. The Colophon, Item 7, pt 19, vol 5, December 1934) has tracked it down to a compendium of aphorisms compiled by two ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, Sarah S. Beach Yule and Mary S. Keene. The compendium is called Borrowings: A compilation of helpful thoughts from great authors (1889, available at archive.org). It gives the following aphorism on page 38:
"If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse trap, than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door. --Emerson"The ladies did not list references, they just listed a number of poems at the end, but no reference to Emerson. Being asked about the origin of the aphorism in 1912, Mrs. Yule remembered (my emphases):
"To the best of my knowledge and belief, I copied it in my handbook from an address delivered long ago, it being my custom to write everything there that I thought particularly good, if expressed in a concise form; and when we were compiling Borrowings, I drew on this old book freely." (Quoted in Raymond Adams 1947. Emerson's brother and the mousetrap. Modern Language Notes 63(7): 483-486.)Both Stevenson and Adams trusted that the aphorism in Borrowings was a verbatim quote of what Sarah Yule had heard Emerson say in one of his lectures, but I wonder about the meaning of the passages emphasised above:
"To the best of my knowledge and belief, ..."
"... that I thought particularly good, if expressed in a concise form, ..."
"... I drew on this old book feely."There seems to be some scope for the possibility that Mrs. Yule had improved a little what she had heard. Or, as typical for history, we will never know what happened exactly.