For children and adults alike, waterbeds used to be the trendiest–till suddenly they were not. After a heyday in the late 1980s where almost one out of every four mattresses sold was a waterbed mattress, the sector dried up in the 1990s, leaving behind a sense of unfilled promise and thousands upon thousands of solid plastic shells. Nowadays, waterbeds make up only a very small portion of overall bed and mattress earnings. Many home furnishing retailers won’t sell them, and a few that do say it’s been years since they last closed a deal.
What exactly happened? How did our excitement for sleeping beneath gallons and gallons of all-natural H2O drain away so fast?
With some reports, waterbeds date all of the way back to 3600 BCE, when Persians filled goat-skin mattresses with water warmed by sunlight. From the early 1800s, Dr. Neil Arnott, a Scottish doctor, made a “hydrostatic bed” for hospital patients with bedsores. This was essentially a warm tub covered with a thin layer of rubber and then sealed up using varnish. From the mid 20th century, science fiction author Robert Heinlein–inspired by the months he spent bedridden with tuberculosis from the 1930s–described waterbeds in great detail in three of his novels. The beds that he pictured had a hardy framework, were temperature-controlled, and included pumps which enabled patients to control the water level within the mattress. You will find also compartments for beverages and snacks, which sounds very convenient. It was, according to Heinlein, “an endeavor to design the ideal hospital bed by one who’d spent too damn long time in hospital beds.”
Hall desired to rethink furniture layout, and was shot with the concept of fluid-filled interiors. Before settling on the waterbed, he’d tried filling a chair with 300 pounds of cornstarch gel, which quickly rotted. He also tried using JELL-O for a filling, with similarly devastating results. The debut of water fulfilled his vision with no ick element. During the graduating class’s thesis workshop, Hall told The Atlantic, pupils ignored other projects and ended up hanging out on his waterbed.
Hall established his own company, Innerspace Environments, and started manufacturing waterbeds available throughout California. Early customers included the group Jefferson Airplane, as well as the Smothers Brothers. Eventually Hall’s bed, which he named “The Delight Pit,” made its way in to 32 retail locations across the nation. Success was short lived, nevertheless, as cheap imitators quickly flooded the market. By the early 1970s, dozens of different businesses were manufacturing waterbeds, feeding the rising need for a brand new way to … sleep.
Though many associate waterbeds with strait-laced suburban living, back in the ’70s they had been a sign of the free-flowing counterculture movement–more inclined to be sold with grills and incense albums than with fluffy pillows and high thread count sheets. “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads” was how a New York Times story from 1986 explained them. The names of manufacturers and vendors reflected this: Wet Dream, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds, and Aquarius Products were some that rolled with the times.
Gender, of course, was a big selling point. “Two things are much better on a waterbed,” that an Aquarius ad said. “Certainly one of them is sleep.” Another ad proclaimed, “She’ll respect you for your car, she will respect you for your position, and she will adore you for the waterbed.” Hippies and hip bachelors alike were the target market for its bed that promised the movement of the ocean. Hall even got in on the act, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” setup, complete with contour pillows, colour tv, directional light, and a bar. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course–Hall made him one covered in blue velvet, and Hef had yet another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair.
From the ’80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, waterbeds were offered in an assortment of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box eyeglasses.
Folks were also eager to try a new spin on something as dull as a bed. If you were a child of the ’80s, it arguably was as near a status symbol as you could get. Manufacturers, meanwhile, fed the demand for novelty frames, bunk beds, circular love nest beds, and even waterbeds for puppies. They also enhanced the experience with innovations like “baffles” that cut down on the wave movement many beds generated, thereby fixing the one way dilemma of people getting seasick in their own bedrooms. As waterbed mania swept the nation, specialty outlets like Waterbed Plaza, Waterbed Emporium, along with the Waterbed Store opened up store, and wave after wave of cheesy local tv advertisements followed.
By 1984, waterbeds have been a $2 billion business.
Like those who still play Sega Genesis or prefer a flip phone into an iPhone, waterbed clients are fiercely loyal to their own retro trend. But their enthusiasm alone won’t likely bring waterbeds straight back to the mainstream. A Washington D.C. furniture salesman interviewed by The Atlantic stated he oftentimes doesn’t inform customers when they’re lying on a waterbed. “Everyone who tries those we have on our floor is extremely happy with the sense, but some individuals will not get it just because it is a waterbed,” he said. Nowadays, the most promising market for soft, squishy waterbeds may, strangely enough, be cows.