Sunday, August 17, 2014

Force-Cups, Plumbers’ Friends and Plungers – Unclogging the Sweet History and Etymology of the Plunger

Force-Cups, Plumbers’ Friends and Plungers – 
Unclogging the Sweet History and Etymology of the Plunger

Long before Bill Murray, as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, drained Bushwood Country Club’s pool when Spaulding was spooked by a chocolate “doodie,” drains and chocolate cigars had already been inextricably linked in history for nearly one hundred years.  The man who invented the standard toilet plunger in 1874 went on to become a candy magnate who manufactured, among other things, chocolate cigars.

The Invention of the Plunger – 1874

John S. Hawley of Stapleton, New York (a neighborhood on Staten Island), filed his application for a patent on an “improvement in vent clearers for wash bowls, &c.” on December 19, 1874.  The patent issued on January 19, 1875: 
The invention consists in an improved vent-clearer, formed by attaching a rubber cup to a handle . . . .

This device is simple and inexpensive, can be used by any one, and will enable the discharge-pipes to be cleared without the trouble, annoyance, and expense of calling in a plumber every time said pipes become clogged.

US Patent No. 158,937, dated January 19, 1875; application filed December 19, 1874.  

Two years later, Hawley patented an improvement for “his vent-clearer or elastic force-cup.”  The improvement consisted of a “bead or thickened rim formed around the edge of the cup of the vent-cleaner,” “so as to make it stronger, more durable, and more effective in operation.” US Patent 186,206, dated January 6, 1877, filed June 6, 1876.  Today’s plunger differs little from the original.

The invention of the plunger was significant enough to garner notice in Scientific American (volume 32 (New Series), number 21, May 22, 1875, page 329) and a nearly full-page spread in a plumbers’ trade magazine:

In most houses trouble is frequently experienced from the closing of small basin wastes by the accumulation of soap in the trap.  To send for a plumber whenever this occurs is troublesome and expensive.  The elastic force cup will usually clear the pipe without difficulty in a moment, and will always be found convenient wherever there are waste pipes.  They are made by Mr. John S. Hawley, No. 144 Chambers street, N. Y.

The Metal Worker, A Weekly Journal of the Stove, Tin, Plumbing and House Furnishing Trades, volume 4, number 11, September 11, 1875, page 3.

The original design is still available today.

The Inventor of the Plunger

John S. Hawley invented one of the most useful and ubiquitous tools in modern history.  His original design has remained nearly unchanged in 140 years.  But his interests seemed to lie elsewhere.  He appears to have quickly left the vent clearing business behind him.  An 1876 advertisement for a “rubber elastic force cup” lists D. Hodgman & Co. as the sole manufacturer, suggesting that Hawley either sold or licensed his patent rights.  But such drastic changes of direction and focus were not new in John S. Hawley’s life.  By the time he sold off his rights in the plunger, he had already had at least three or four careers in New York, Texas, California and the silver fields of Nevada, during which time made one or two fortunes.  But his biggest success would come after the plunger – in the candy business.

John Savage Hawley was born in Charlton, New York in 1836.  His father was a farmer; apparently a wealthy farmer, not a subsistence farmer.  At a young age, John was sent away to study in Jonesville, Michigan and at the Charlottesville Academy, in Schoharie County, New York.  He returned home at the age of 17 to help his father on the farm.  Four years later, in 1859, he set off for Texas, where he joined his brother in the “fancy-goods” business (a jeweler[i]).  When the Civil War broke out, he escaped from the South through Mexico (due to his Unionist leanings), and ended up in Virginia City, Nevada where he worked for awhile as a clerk for a mining company.  He later made his first fortune as a lumber dealer and part-owner of the Ophir toll-road.[ii]  The toll road is still there, where it is used as by off-road, ATV enthusiasts near the ghost town of Ophir, near Virginia City.  He displayed an inventive side while in Nevada, reportedly applying for a patent on a pipe with a corn cob-lined bowl.[iii]

When Hawley returned to New York in 1870, he joined the confectionary firm of Wallace & Company as junior partner.[iv]  He remained in that job through 1874 when, as we now know, he invented the “elastic force-cup” or plunger. 

In 1875, presumably using profits from his “elastic force-cup” invention, he went into business for himself; opening a confectionary business at 144 Chambers Street, the same address from which he had earlier sold “force cups.”  After three years of running the business alone, he took on a partner, Herman W. Hoops.  Together, they formed the firm of Hawley & Hoops, one of the most successful candy companies of its day.  

Hawley & Hoops left marks that persist to this day.  One of Hawley & Hoops’ factory buildings, renovated in 2007, is home to the Mulberry Street Branch of the New York Public Library where “ghosts of chocolate cigars” are said to “waft over hungry minds.”[v]  An entry in Stanford University Libraries catalog suggests that Hawley & Hoops owned a patent for a method of making “chocolate candy segars.”  But their line of products was actually much more varied.  Their offerings included, old fashioned licorice gum drops, French creams, union cream bon bons, flat peppermint and wintergreen creams, Ardsley patties, old fashioned licorice gum drops, chocolate candy penny goods and marshmallows.[vi]  

Hawley & Hoops is also still in business, or at least the ghost of Hawley & Hoops is still in operation.  Forrest Mars purchased Hawley & Hoops in 1952 and it was eventually merged it into M&M Mars.  The Saratogian News, April 10, 2011.

Strangely, however, despite the success of his most successful invention, none of his biographies, even the ones written during his lifetime, mention his involvement in the invention of the elastic force-cup, the plumber’s, the plunger, or by any other name.  Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said that “a rose by any other name smells as sweet”? Perhaps a toilet plunger, even by any other name, never smells sweet.  He may have kept mum because it seemed beneath a person of his station in life.  Perhaps plungers seemed unseemly in light of his higher calling.  John S. Hawley, you see, was a pious, deeply religious man.

John S. Hawley, by all accounts, was a good, honest man.  He was respected for his honest business dealings.  He helped lead a crusade against the use of unhealthy fillers in candy.  He donated the money to start a boy’s school in New York. 

He also donated a lot of money to the Church of Christian Science.  His money helped build the First Church of Christ, Scientist in San Diego, designed by noted California architect Irving Gill in 1909.  The building still stands, and is listed as a national historic landmark.  Shortly before his death in1913, John S. Hawley wrote an anti-doctor, pro-Christian Science book entitled, Job, His Old Friend and His New Friend; also A Study of What the Book of Job Means Spiritually, to All Mankind, by a Plain Man, Who Has about Finished With What is Called Business, and Writes from Experiences, Not Entirely Unlike Those of Job (San Diego, Frye & Smith, 1912). 

The San Marcos Building, Santa Barbara, California
John S. Hawley was also responsible for a number of other building projects.  A partner, with Charles Harriman (who ran a sugar refinery), in the real estate firm of Hawley and Harriman, he played a big part in developing the Greystone section of northwest Yonkers, New York.  At the time of his death, Hawley was building an office building in Santa Barbara, California, designed by local architect Corbley Poole. Building and Industrial News, Number 75, July 2, 1913, page 18.  According to Betsy Green, columnist and historian at, the San Marcos Building still stands on State Street in Santa Barbara, California, although much of it destroyed in an earthquake in 1925.

Although Hawley’s devotion to his religious convictions may be admirable, his choice of religion, Christian Science, a religion that historically encouraged prayer healing and discouraged medical treatment, is surprising; given his many family connections to the medical profession.  His brother Gidson was a physician and his son, H. Reed, were physicians. [vii]  Another John S. Hawley (perhaps a nephew?)[viii] was a well-known physician in New York City in the late 1800’s. [ix] His religious convictions may also have contributed to his death. 

An unsympathetic view of Hawley’s last years appeared in an expose of quack healers:

Another prominent person cured was John S. Hawley.  He had nephritis.  At least competent physicians told him he had nephritis and that his case was incurable.

He fell into the hands of a Christian Scientist.  He was assured that the kidneys had nothing to do with life, that Christian Science would correct his error.  He wanted to believe this, compelled himself to believe it and actually did believe it.  H was cured – he believed that too.  Out of his gratitude and the goodness of his heart, he provided a sum to build a Christian Science church in San Diego.  Before the church was completed he died of nephritis, just as his physician had told him he would.

Chas. W. Warner, Quacks, Jackson, Mississippi, Charles W. Warner, Seventh Printing (revised), 1934, page 177.

But regardless of how or why he passed, he left a lasting legacy.  I will think of him and give a moment of silent thanks every time I clear a drain or eat a chocolate cigar.

The Etymology of the Plunger

When John S. Hawley patented the plunger in 1875, it was referred to as a “vent clearer.”  Two years later, his patent on an improved, beaded rim, refer to the invention as an “elastic force-cup.”  Throughout the rest of the century, and into the 1920s, advertisements for and references to what we would now call a plunger generally refer to “force-cups.”  By 1894, a new invention, a modification of the “force-cup,” appeared on the market under the name, “plumber’s friend.”  The term, “plumber’s friend” is still used as a synonym for a plunger, but at the time, only specific types of plungers were called “plumbers’ friends,” regular plungers were still called “force cups.”

The word “plunger” is said to date to at least the year 1611.  Merriam Webster gives two primary meanings of the word: 1. a tool made of a stick with a rubber cup on the end that is used to clear a blocked pipe in a toilet or sink; and 2. a part that moves up and down usually inside a tube or cylinder (such as a syringe) to push something out.  The first sense of the word was not used in association with John S. Hawley’s “elastic force-cups” until probably sometime after 1920.  The term, “force cup” was still used, as an alternative to plunger, as late as 1974.[x]

The discussion of pump (“forcer”) technology in an 18th Century science text illustrates how plunger was used at the time:

The best way of making Forcers, is to have  Plunger, or solid Brass Cylinder, (Fig. 39.) equal in Length to the Barrel, and a little less in Diameter than the Bore, so that it can move freely in it without any Friction . . .

John Theophilus, Desaguliers, A Course of Experimental Philosophy, London, W. Innys, 1744, page 162.

A technical dictionary from the mid-1700s similarly defines “plunger” as the moving part of a pump:

Plunger, the same as a forcer for a pump. . . . 

Forcer, or Forcing-Pump, in mechanics, is a kind of pump in which there is a forcer or piston, without a valve.

The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, London, J. Fletcher & Co., 1765.
In the late 1880s, when “force-cups” were still new, the word “plunger” was used to identify various types of plumbers’ pipe cleaning tools, but not with force-cups.  The tools that were called “plunger” were all tools that were moved up and down within the pipe, like a pump’s “plunger.”  It was not used to identify “force cups,” which were placed over and around a drain or entrance to a pipe:

The plunger.  Is a piece of stout leather, 3½ in. in diameter, screwed on the end of a broom-stick, and is used for forcing water-closets when stopped.  The manner of employing it is to force it briskly up and down the closet; not too hard, or otherwise the trap may be spoiled.

Philip John Davies, Standard Practical Plumbing, volume 1 (2d ed. Rev.), London, E. & F. N. Spon, Ltd 1889, page 26;

Fig. 102. – Drain plunger, with brass cup and 

William R. Maguire, Domestic Sanitary Drainage and Plumbing, London, K. Paul, Trench Truebner & Co., Ltd., 1890, page 183;

Another instrument often used is a “drain-plunger,” an india-rubber disc at the end of a rod which, passed rapidly up and down a drain, produces forcible pressure and suction alternately, and so dislodgers obstructions.

Arthur Mercer Davies, A Handbook of Hygiene, London, C. Griffin and Company, Limited, 1895, page 337.

By at least as early as 1894, a new tool was on the market; a “plumber’s friend.”  The “plumber’s friend” looked very similar to Hawley’s “force cup” and would likely also be called a plunger today.  The “plunger’s friend” was basically what we might call a one-way plunger today.  It was a modified “force-cup,” with a one-way check-valve in the rubber cup.  The valve was closed pushing down, and opened when pulling up.  This prevented the cup from sticking to the bottom of the basin by suction if the drain did not clear on the first push.  It also prevented the plunger from pulling up on the clog with vacuum pressure.  It operated only to push on the clog, you could not push-pull while plunging up and down. 

“Plumber’s friend” still appears in Merriam Webster’s as a synonym plunger.  At the time, however, and into the early 20th Century, “force-cup” and “plumber’s friend” appear to have been two different names for two different tools.  Plunger would not be used for “force-cups” until sometime after 1920. 

In 1920, the word “plunger” appears to have been used as a name for a sort of flat plunger – a step closer to the familiar, modern plunger:

A clearance can usually be effected in these cases of stoppage, by means of a plunger, or for small traps, a force cup.  The plunger is a rubber disc, fixed at the end of a handle about 2 feet long (Fig. 62), while the force cup has a bell-shaped end of the same material, on a shorter handle.   (Fig. 63.) The pan is filled with water, the plunger placed over the entrance to the trap at the bottom of the pan, and pushed down suddenly with a jerk.  The resulting pressure will generally move the obstruction without any further effort.

Ernest G. Blake, Building Repairs; a Practical Guide to Their Execution, London, Batsford, Ltd., 1920, page 117.

Based on the description of use and the accompanying picture, the “plunger” of 1920 appears to have been used, more or less, in the same way we use a modern plunger.  It is interesting to note that the description of use appears to be applicable to both the flat “plunger” and the bell-shaped “force-cup” plunger.  Perhaps the meaning of the word plunger was already in the process of change. 

The Plunger Closet – a Red Herring

An early use of the word “plunger” in the name of a state-of-the-art toilet design from 1777, nearly 100 years before Hawley’s invention of the “force cup,” has been a red herring that may have confused others’ attempts to pinpoint the invention of the plunger and the etymology of the word.  Samuel Prosser received a patent for the “plunger closet” in 1777.[xi]  The online etymology dictionary,, dates the word plunger, as a device, to 1777; presumably based on the date of Prosser’s “plunger closet” patent.    The use of plunger in a “plunger closet,” however, was consistent with the then-current meaning of plunger as something moved up and down in a pipe.  It did not signal a change in the word plunger, and did not relate to a drain-clearing plunger in the modern sense of the word.  

“Plunger closet” toilets were still in use in 1887, although they were considered less hygienic than the more up-to-date “water closet” design, which ushered in the modern flush toilet or WC.  The plunger in a plunger closet basically plugged the toilet bowl drain pipe.  The plug was attached by a rod to a handle used by the operator to flush the bowl.  When finished, an operator would pull up on a handle, unseating the plunger from the drain pipe, drain the contents of the bowl, and then push down on the handle, to reseat the “plunger” and seal the drain pipe. Pottery, a History of the Pottery Industry and its Evolution as Applied to Sanitation, with Unique Specimens and Facsimile marks from Ancient to Modern Foreign and American Wares, Philadelphia, Dando, 1910, page 86 (see pic, above).


I mentioned earlier that the ghost of Hawley & Hoops survives today as part of M&M Mars Company.  But when M&M Mars purchased the company in 1952, the Hawley & Hoops name was still so strong and recognizable that M&M Mars continued running some of their business interests under the Hawley & Hoop name.  Many of the 1950s-era M&Ms candy wrappers bear the name Hawley & Hoops, not M&Ms Mars.  So, although John S. Hawley did not invent M&Ms, the business he established helped propel M&Ms to its current level of success.

Hawley & Hoops m&m's bag.

So, whenever you eat M&Ms, or attend a Nascar race, go ATV-ing on the Ophir toll road, or clean a clogged drain with your elastic force-cup - remember, it was John S. Hawley who sweetened our lives, paved the road, and cleared the way for all of us.

[i] The 1860 census reportedly lists his occupation as jeweler. History Lesson: Charlton Native was a Major Player in the Candy Business, The Saratogian News, April 10, 2011.
[ii] Biographical History of Westchester County, New York, Volume 1, Chicago, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1899, page 37-41.
[iii] The Saratogian News, April 10, 2011.
[iv] Biographical History of Westchester County, page 39.
[vi] Hawley & Hoops advertisement, The International Confectioner, 1914.
[vii] The Biographical History of Westchester County, pages 38, 39.
[viii] If he is related, I presume that he is a nephew, as he was attending Columbia Medical School in 1878. Annual Register of the Officers and Students of Columbia College, for the year 1878-1879, page 85.   John S. Hawley (the candy manufacturer) had a son named John S. Hawley, born in 1877, who joined him in the candy business. The Biographical History of Westchester County, page 40.
[ix] Dr. John S. Hawley edited a summary of papers on gynecology in a medical journal. Occasional Report on Gynaecology, by John S. Hawley, MD, The Epitome of Medicine, a Monthly Retrospec of Progress in All Divisions of Medico-Chirurgical Practice, volume 5, 1888, page 396.  In one of the issues, his name appears directly above a reprint of an article about tampons.  Dr. John S. Hawley, possibly the namesake of John S. Hawley, inventor of the “vent clearer,” edited an article on tampons.  You can’t write this stuff.
[x] United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Yearbook, Washington DC, Government Printing Office, 1974, page 203 (“In most homes a toilet and drain rubber plunger, or force cup, is a necessity.”).

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