In the 70s, that swinging decade of key parties and shag carpets, waterbeds were the epitome of sexy. They were coveted by free-love hippies, randy bachelors and senior citizens alike. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner reportedly had two waterbeds, one clothed in green velvet, another in Tasmanian possum fur.
Kids today don’t remember them firsthand, but they’ve seen them featured in movies and even lampooned on SNL:
When waterbeds went mainstream in the 1980s, children pleaded for them:
Even grandparents got into the craze — to cushion arthritic joints and relieve back pain. By 1986, waterbeds made up 20 percent of the bed market and swelled to a $2 billion per year industry by 1989.
Was it really such a novel idea?
Not really. As it turns out, Hef’s marsupial mattress cover wasn’t far off from the first waterbeds. More than 3,000 years ago, ancient Persians filled goatskins with water and warmed them in the sun. No one is exactly sure about their earliest purpose, but speculation ranges from luxurious rest for royalty to comfort for the sick and elderly.
Waterbeds made their next appearance in the 70s and 80s. The 1870s and 1880s, that is. In 1832, Scottish physician Neil Arnott invented Dr. Arnott’s Hydrostatic or Floating Bed, filled with water to support bedridden patients’ bodies evenly so as to prevent bedsores.
By 1871, when Mark Twain wrote an article for The New York Times about plans for Park Church in Elmira, NY, under the supervision of pastor Thomas Kennicott Beecher (brother to famous abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe), waterbeds had made their way to the United States. Twain reported that the church’s infirmary would have two “water-beds [for invalids whose pains will not allow them to lie on a less yielding substance]” and that the current waterbeds were “always in demand, and never out of service.”
When Sir James Paget introduced Arnott’s waterbed to St. Bartholomew Hospital in London in 1873, waterbeds were able to ride a wave of good PR. A decade later, Dr. William Hooper of Portsmouth, England, patented his version of the waterbed to treat arthritis and rheumatism patients.
Yet, because they didn’t offer a way to regulate the water temperature, they eventually fell out of fashion.
Who solved the temperature problem?
In 1968, a San Francisco State University student named Charles Hall created a mattress filled with water for his senior thesis project. More importantly, he found a practical way to heat it. Hall’s intention was to create comfortable furniture that would use heat to relieve muscle pain and the water flotation to reduce pressure points. But, as he told the New York Times, when he invited his classmates over to his Haight-Ashbury apartment for a demo, they ended up “frolicking” on his creation. And voila, man, a sex symbol was born.
In a Washington Post article, Hall shared his memories of a “typical early waterbed dealer” — a seedy fellow who also sold something called “orgy butter.” An early waterbed model advertised in Playboy called the Pleasure Pit, and it was “surrounded by leather and covered in furs.” The tagline of a 1970 waterbed ad read: “Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep.”
Hippies, figures. What about the east coast?
New York City was actually the worst market for waterbeds. One bedding retailer told the New York Times in 1986 that New Yorkers were too “urbane” and “sophisticated” for the trend. But manufacturers blamed something else — restrictions by landlords and the impracticality of moving heavy, unwieldly bags of water into small apartments. That being said, while it was on display at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, the waterbed was, according to a 1971 Time article, reportedly a hot meeting place for hopeful singles.
Slow sales figures notwithstanding, waterbeds permeated popular culture from every side, from sitcoms to art installations. In a Whitney Museum of American Art catalog published in the mid-80s, architecture critic Martin Filler wrote that the waterbed was one of the “most evocative furniture types of the time.”
Someone who was less impressed with waterbeds? Pope John Paul II. On a 1987 visit to Miami, the pontiff declined to sleep on an archbishop’s waterbed, opting instead to rest his holy head on a traditional mattress.
So what happened?
As waterbeds went mainstream, they naturally became less hip.
The selling points shifted from sex appeal to therapeutic purposes as doctors recommended them for older patients, and they were sometimes spotted in nursing homes.
At any rate, these behemoths had their shortcomings. Waterbed installation was a real pain in the ass. They are very heavy, their parts require maintenance; oftentimes they were left behind after a move since it was such a pain in the ass to drain the mattress. Occasionally, apartment renters were required to purchase waterbed insurance in case of leaks or damage.
Verified horror stories include collapsed balconies, worm infestations and a mattresses punctured by cats’ claws. Before the internet, an urban legend circulated that water from a waterbed had put out a house fire while the occupants were away. In fact, it was the waterbed heater that started the fire in the first place.
Ultimately, the waterbed lost its appeal even as a therapeutic solution as new, lower-maintenance beds designed for comfort became available.
Does anyone still buy them?
In recent years, waterbeds have accounted for less than five percent of the bed market. While many retailers no longer carry the beds or components, there are still plenty of waterbed specialty stores. And, of course, they’re available online.