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The Strange Business of Suction Cups

“The suction cup holds it fast to anything the cup is stuck to,” The New York Times said in 1925.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

It was the cup that comical YouTube unboxing videos were made for.

Last year, the Mighty Mug, a drink receptacle that’s designed to not fall down under normal circumstances, gained a lot of attention from video makers the world over because of its one weird trick.

Unboxer extraordinaire Lamarr Wilson, for example, was so freaked out by this cup that he took a baseball bat to it. (That did the trick, by the way.)

Of course, the secret to this cup is that it’s really two cups—there’s a suction cup at the bottom that holds it up.

And there was once a time when suction cups, on their own, generated a similar kind of amazement from the American public.

The first reference to the devices in the New York Times, circa October 1925, sounded amazed by the suction cup’s ability to stick to any clear surface.

“The suction cup holds it fast to anything the cup is stuck to, whether it be the wash basin, the shaving mirror or the side wall of the bathroom,” the brief, discussing a shaving brush holder explained. “The sanitary side of the device of the device is stressed, it preventing the brush from being tipped over, knocked to the floor or otherwise dirtied.”

The article suggested that the device would “take a good deal of the trouble out of shaving, especially on Pullman cars.”

And in a lot of ways, the idea of suction still surprises us in big ways and small.

Last summer, for example, Michael Phelps decided to take to the pool in Rio with some noticeable marks all over his body. It turned out that the individual with the most Olympic medals of all time had been introduced to the Chinese art of cupping, a style of therapy involving heated glass cups that create a suction effect, and had been using it as part of his training process.

“I’ve done cupping for a while before meets,” Phelps explained, according to Time. “But I haven’t had a bruise like this for a while. I asked for a little help yesterday because I was a little sore and I was training hard.”

Whatever the case, it was good advertising for the technique, which is said to increase circulation.

“I’ve already gotten emails from a bunch of people saying, oh I need to make an appointment, I saw cupping last night,” Erika Weber, a licensed cupuncturist, told Fortune.

All suction works more or less the same way, by forcing out or limiting air, creating a vacuum effect, which holds the cup in place because of atmospheric pressure. It’s a technology that ends up getting used in all sorts of interesting ways, like, for example, in LASIK surgery, or to help hold your phone in place as you drive. 

It’s also something that’s made at least one person pretty rich. 


Maybe the most famous suction cup is something that you probably associate with a bad memory: the rubber plunger, most often used to unclog your toilet.

It’s hard to give that invention a specific date, but the earliest patent for a such a device came about in 1875, thanks to the handiwork of a man named John S. Hawley.

“My invention has for its object to furnish a simple, convenient, and inexpensive device for clearing the vents or discharge-pipes of wash bowls, stationary wash-tubs, &c., should they become accidentally stopped,” Hawley wrote in his patent filing.

(As the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog notes, Hawley’s most notable claim to fame came in the candy industry.)

An image of the plunger on Hawley's patent application.
An image of the plunger on Hawley’s patent application. Public Domain

But suction cups are used elsewhere, of course, from everything to to those Baby on Board signs you see on cars to repairing Apple computers to climbing up Trump Tower.  

We’re even still trying to make better ones. Researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage are currently working on prototype suction cups designed to work on rough or wet surfaces, with its approach inspired by the clingfish, an animal that’s naturally accustomed to such suctioning.

One guy who might be interested in that news is named Bill Adams, who has banked his entire career on high-quality suction cups.

Adams didn’t decide one day to start manufacturing the tiny vacuums, but in the late 1970s, while attempting to build a business centered around a device called the “window blanket”—essentially a piece of bubble wrap that homeowners would attach to attic windows—he struck accidental suction-cup gold. Window blankets were a thing at the time, but Adams’ solution was a failure, leaving him with a whole lot of bubble wrap and even more suction cups.

“I got the idea for suction cups when I saw that many businesses had signs in their window held by duct tape,” Adams told the Ellwood City Ledger last year. “I would stop and show them how the suction cups and tacks could hold their signs, look good and leave no mess when they were removed.”

So he ended up focusing on suction cups instead. Soon, his company was selling the tiny vacuums at retail, with things picking up after he started selling to a buyer for True Value. Good start, but there were problems with the original design. A Mercedes owner pointed out that his company’s suction cup damaged his vehicle because they unwittingly worked like magnifying glasses.

“It was then that he realized that not only must suction cups be perfectly made in order to work, but they also should be re-engineered to do no harm,” the Adams’ company says on its website. “He redesigned the suction cups to disperse, rather than focus, light.”

A suction cup.
A suction cup. Quinn Dombrowski/CC BY-SA 2.0

So they kept at it, and by 1992, Adams Manufacturing had become the largest manufacturer of suction cups in the country, selling 50,000,000 of them that year, according to the Associated Press. Adams noted at the time that he would get fan mail from people who used the suction cups in unusual ways—including one guy who used it to put down his toilet seat, for the sake of his frustrated wife.

“He rigged up a contraption that would drop the toilet seat after a minute and a half,” Adams told the AP. “It may not have commercial possibilities, but it was a good idea.”

Among other things, the company also clears up one mystery on its website: whether adding moisture—perhaps, I don’t know, by licking—to a suction cup helps its seal. The company says that “a tiny dab of Vaseline or cooking oil” will, in fact, improve the seal, a recommendation buttressed by the company’s claim to having a “PhD in Suction Cup-Ology.”

All of which is hard-earned experience, though Adams says he got lucky.

“I was blessed,” he told the Elmwood City Ledger. “In the beginning, we were very underfunded. It was touch and go.”

 A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.