The Humble Suction Cup: It's Hard To Take Seriously

PORTERSVILLE, Pa. - William Adams says his suction cups will stick stubbornly to just about any clean, smooth surface, including his bald head.

As the president of Adams Manufacturing Co., which makes 50 million suction cups a year, Adams has tested the devices on many kinds of surfaces.

His company, based in the small town of Portersville about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, has a fat file of letters from customers who have come up with other off-the-wall uses.

One man screwed suction cups onto ice-cube trays and stuck them on top of his cramped freezer compartment. He patented that design. Another man whose wife couldn't stand it when he forgot to put the toilet seat down turned to suction cups for help.

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

Adams Manufacturing makes suction cups of varying sizes with hooks, clips, rings, clamps, tacks or screws attached. The company, the nation's leading manufacturer of suction cups, employs about 150 people during peak production. Annual sales total $6 million to $10 million, Adams says.

The pliable, clear cups are commonly used to hang stained glass, thermometers, bird feeders, signs or stuffed animals in windows. The company's most successful line is for Christmas decorations, such as lights, wreaths and stockings.

Business was booming several years ago, when the fad of hanging "Baby on Board" signs in cars swept the nation.


"That was a wonderful craze," Adams says.

Steve Stadelmeier, an industrial designer at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees the portable vacuum is a handy device for dealing with "the mundane aspects" of life, but he says there are some products that just won't ever be taken too seriously.

"Nobody's going to trust their life to a suction cup," he says.

"They make nice noises," he says. "They're squishy. They remind you of octopuses."

Suction cups developed along with rubber and plastics in the 20th century. In the 1940s, white or black rubber cups were used on rooftop luggage carriers for automobiles and as shock absorbers in World War II airplanes. The unsightly cups would get hard and crusty after about a year and wear out, Stadelmeier says.

Vinyl and silicone rubber moved into the consumer market in the 1960s, allowing manufacturers to make clear cups with more staying power.

When a suction cup is pushed against a surface, the air is forced out, creating a vacuum.

Suction cups don't suck at all. They push.

"They should be called vacuum cups," says David Shayt, a collections manager with The Smithsonian Institution. "I guess the cup is sort of trying to pucker, but a pucker cup doesn't sound quite right."

For Adams, striving for quality is struggling against the millions of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and helium atoms that try to break the suction cup's seal and destroy the vacuum.

Adams has patented several design improvements, including a pull tab that makes removal easier. He has tried unsuccessfully to develop a suction cup that would stick to wood.


Adams talks about the intricacies of suction cups with the fervor of an engineer or physicist, but he has no technical training.

He quit his job as a librarian in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s and spent about $5,000 he had inherited on developing plastic insulation that would be attached to windows by suction cups with tacks.

The idea didn't sell, and he was stuck with unpaid bills and thousands of boxes of suction cups. One day, he pulled into a gas station, and it hit him.

"There were dozens of signs taped in the window with duct tape," he said. "I told the owner, `If you had these suction cups with the thumb tacks, you could hang up your signs and you wouldn't have any tape to scrape off the window."'

The owner bought two boxes, and the seeds of Adams Manufacturing were planted.