After a heyday in the late s in which nearly one out of every four mattresses sold was a waterbed mattress, the industry dried up in the s, leaving behind a sense of unfilled promise and thousands upon thousands of unsold vinyl shells. Today, waterbeds make up only a very small fraction of overall bed and mattress sales. Although they were most popular in that decade of boomboxes and acid-washed jeans, waterbeds had been gaining steam since the late s, and in retrospect seem to have more substance to them than other notorious fads.
How did our enthusiasm for sleeping atop gallons and gallons of all-natural H2O drain away so quickly? By some accounts, waterbeds date all the way back to BCE, when Persians filled goat-skin mattresses with water warmed by the sun.
In the early s, Dr. This was essentially a warm bath covered with a thin layer of rubber and then sealed up with varnish. William Hooper of Portsmouth, England patented a therapeutic rubber mattress that could be filled with water. It, too, was for hospital patients suffering from poor circulation and bedsores. In the mid 20th century, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein—inspired by the months he spent bedridden with tuberculosis in the s— described waterbeds in great detail in three of his novels.
The beds he envisioned had a sturdy frame, were temperature-controlled, and contained pumps that allowed patients to control the water level inside the mattress. There were also compartments for drinks and snacks, which sounds really convenient. Hall wanted to rethink furniture design, and was taken with the idea of fluid-filled interiors.
Before settling on the waterbed, he had tried filling a chair with pounds of cornstarch gel, which quickly rotted. The introduction of water fulfilled his vision without the ick factor. Hall established his own company, Innerspace Environments, and began manufacturing waterbeds for sale throughout California. Early customers included the band Jefferson Airplane, as well as the Smothers Brothers. Success was short-lived, however, as cheap imitators quickly flooded the market. By the early s, dozens of different companies were manufacturing waterbeds, feeding the growing demand for a groovy new way to … sleep.
The names of manufacturers and distributors reflected this: Sex, of course, was a big selling point. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course—Hall made him one covered in green velvet , and Hef had another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair. By the '80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, waterbeds were available in a variety of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box frames.
Advertisements by sellers like Big Sur Waterbeds played up the health benefits with shirtless, beefy dudes like this one: People were also eager to try a new spin on something as boring as a bed. Kids, especially , loved the squishy, gurgling weirdness of a waterbed. If you were a child of the '80s, it arguably was as close to a status symbol as you could get.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, fed the demand with novelty frames, bunk beds, circular love nest beds, and even waterbeds for dogs. As waterbed mania swept the nation, specialty outlets like Waterbed Plaza, Waterbed Emporium, and the Waterbed Store opened up shop, and wave after wave of cheesy local television ads followed. At the height of their popularity, in , 22 percent of all mattress sales in the U. They were high maintenance.
Installing one meant running a hose into your bedroom and filling the mattress up with hundreds of gallons of H2O—a precarious process that held the potential for a water-soaked bedroom. Waterbeds were also really, really heavy. In addition to the filled mattress, the frame—which had to support all that water weight—could be a back-breaker.
When the mattress needed to be drained, an electric pump or some other nifty siphoning tricks were required. Waterbeds could also spring leaks as Edward Scissorhands showed , which could be patched but, again, added to the cost and hassle. By that time, competitors like Tempur-Pedic and Select Comfort were also coming out with mattress innovations that offered softness and flexibility without making customers run a garden hose through their second-floor bedroom window.
These days, the waterbed market is still going, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. Mattress models are lighter than the models of decades past, and come with nifty accessories like foam padding and interior fibers that further cut down on the wave effect. Most models are quite sophisticated, in fact. The Boyd Comfort Supreme mattress has all the technical specs of a household gadget: There are also airframe waterbeds that stand firm on their own, and sophisticated temperature-control devices that keep sleepers warm.
Marty Pojar, owner of The Waterbed Doctor which takes mainly online and phone orders , told The Orange County Register that most of his orders come from customers in the Midwest and Northeast, where customers want to hop into a warm bed on cold winter nights. Like those who still play Sega Genesis or prefer a flip phone to an iPhone, waterbed customers are fiercely loyal to their retro trend. These days, the most promising market for soft, squishy waterbeds may, oddly enough, be cows.