WTF Happened to The Waterbed?!

  • December, 2021
  • 15 min
  • By: Eric Cruz

Waterbeds are a true American classic that has been commercially available since the 1960s. They were one of America’s most iconic fads back in their day, thought to bring a sense of fun and romance to the bedroom while providing the pinnacle of comfort to anyone who owned them.

Memories of waterbeds are still fresh in some folk’s minds who remember when the market for them was booming in the 1980s. The industry got so hot that by the early 1990’s nearly one out of every four mattresses sold was a waterbed!

But as the ‘90s progressed, there was a shift in the market, and waterbeds went from being a mattress store staple to becoming a pariah of the mattress industry. Buyers became increasingly disenchanted with them as they started feeling cheated by unfulfilled health promises, unexpected physical pains, and costly impractical maintenance needs. By the 90’s end, the waterbed market mostly collapsed, leaving discontent for the technology and hundreds of thousands of unsold vinyl shells.

Today, waterbeds make up only a fraction of total bed sales. Most modern-day furnishing stores won’t even sell them, which is understandable considering that the bedding stores that carry water beds often claim it’s been years since they last sold one.

So what happened to waterbeds? No really… WTF happened to waterbeds?!

Why did the waterbed craze come and go? What made people stop loving wavy vinyl blocks filled with water as their bed of choice?

This article will explore the sordid history of waterbeds, how they climbed and fell from consumer grace, and showcase some modern-day alternatives that most bed owners would agree are superior to the outdated aqueous sleep science waterbed technology.

Waterbed History

It is believed that the first waterbeds were developed in 3600 BCE by the Persians. The earliest version was created by tailoring goat skin into large bags filled with sun-heated water.

Later in history, sleep science started to adopt the concept of waterbeds as a therapeutic solution when Dr. Neil Arnott, a Scottish physician, invented a “hydrostatic bed” for hospital patients with bedsores in the early 1800s. Waterbeds were not a practical household item by any means as it was simply a warm bath covered by a thin piece of rubber affixed to a bathtub with varnishing that allowed patients to lay on top of the water. As time went on, the concept slowly evolved, leading English Dr. William Hooper to patent a therapeutic rubber mattress for hospital patients dealing with poor circulation and bedsores in 1853.

Fast forward to the 1930s, a tuberculosis-suffering science fiction writer named Robert Heinlein expanded household knowledge of the mostly unknown waterbed to the world when he wrote in great detail about them in three of his novels. The inspiration for his writing undoubtedly came from the month-long periods he spent tossing and turning in hospital beds while recovering from the disease.

The beds he imagined featured temperature controls, a solid foundation, and pumps that allowed patients to regulate the H2O level within the mattress. There were even convenient storage areas for beverages and snacks! The reason for concentrating on this topic, according to Heinlein, was as “an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.”

Waterbeds Become A Household Item

Charlie Hall is the man responsible for bringing waterbeds mainstream. In his early years attending industrial design school, he invented the first waterbed intended for consumer use while working on his master’s thesis project in 1968. Wishing to rethink furniture design, he was drawn to the concept of liquid-filled interiors. Unlike the medical variety of the past, he created his prototype made out of vinyl rather than rubber.

His early experiments included filling a chair with 300 pounds of cornstarch gel, which quickly decayed with rot. He also attempted to utilize JELL-O as the filler, but it was equally ineffective. Finally, he decided to use H2O as the sole interior medium, fulfilling his goal without the unpleasant results of his previous failures. When he showcased the invention for his graduating class thesis workshop, Hall stated all the students were more interested in sitting on his new bed than reviewing their other peer’s projects.

With the clear market potential of waterbeds in the United States, Charlie Hall began his own company, Innerspace Environments, producing them for sale throughout California. Hall coined his invention the “Pleasure Pit” and gradually opened 32 retail outlets across the state after it acquired popularity. Musical celebrities such as The Smothers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and other notable figures were his first customers.

During the 1970s, people wanted something new, different, and, most importantly - fun! The curious benefits of a water bed being advertised could not be ignored and sparked the interest of the masses leading to waterbeds becoming a symbol of the counterculture movement of the time. The New York Times wrote an article in 1986 where they stated waterbeds as being “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads”.

Some of the early marketing was geared toward promoting the sex benefits of using waterbeds. An example of this was an Aquarius advertisement that stated, “Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep.” and another ad reading, “She’ll admire you for your car, she’ll respect you for your position, and she’ll love you for your waterbed.”

Companies producing these beds designed to provide users with the movement of the sea focused primarily on hippie and bachelor demographics. Hall fed into the craze and went all out, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” configuration that included contour pillows, directional lighting, color television, and even a bar. The craze piqued the interest of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, who had Hall make him one out of green velvet and another covered in Tasmanian possum hair.

Yet, victory came at a high price for Hall. Dozens of manufacturers started producing waterbeds in the early 1970s, driven by growing consumer demand for a novel way to sleep and an intriguing romantic bedroom experience. The competition went hard and heavy, flooding the market with their low-cost water bed imitations to cash in on the trend.

Waterbeds had gone from the hinterlands to the commercial mainstream by the ‘80s. The Times stated, “It has followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda.”. From there, waterbeds started being offered in various designs, from sturdy box frames, Victorian beds with carved headboards, and even four-post Colonials.

Manufacturers were quick to innovate the product attempting to entice more consumers, such as offering water bunk beds, fun novelty frames, circular love nest designs, and, believe it or not, waterbeds for dogs!

Knowing some land-loving consumers avoided these mattresses for fear of nightly seasickness, manufacturers also developed “baffles” that helped reduce the wavy motions of water beds.

People were eager to experiment with the new bed design, thinking, “A fresh take on something as common and boring as a bed? Yes, please!”. Amorous adventurers and curious sleepers weren’t the only markets for them, though. Allergy sufferers appreciated the idea of having a waterbed that didn’t collect irritating debris and dead skin cells that attracted dust mites. At the same time, the free-floating quality drew back pain sufferers to the beds’. Children also loved waterbeds because they enjoyed the novelty of having them and the endless fun they offered. The squishy, gurgling noises of these beds delighted kids and made for great entertainment!

In 1987 22% of all bed purchases in America were water bed sales! That is how waterbeds rose to the peak of their iconic fame in the ‘80s when waterbed sales were a whopping $2 billion industry.

So what went wrong? How could a product, once so beloved, now become something held in such disdain obscurity?

The Problems of Waterbeds

As more people became waterbed owners, the issues of owning them became more apparent. As time went on, the troubles and tribulations of these bed owners started to spread in social circles and media outlets alike. Awareness of why many first-time owners would never buy a second one of these beds became deep-rooted common knowledge for many people of the time. The issues and concerns people developed included:

Body Pain & Poor Joint Support

The first big problem with waterbeds was revealed when people started noticing pain from using them. While waterbeds felt like the most comfortable bed anyone ever felt upon first sitting on them, over time, owners would experience tossing and turning due to bodily pains from poor pressure point targeting.

Waterbeds may provide adequate support for your overall body. Still, waterbeds fall short of providing sufficient joint support for preventing specific issues, which is why after sleeping on a waterbed for a while, some people report numbness in their extremities and lower back pain. This discomfort can last for weeks before your body can acclimate to this type of bed, which may never happen. Even after adjusting, your waterbed can cause chronic strain in your shoulders and neck that could make you regret your purchase. After all, a bag full of water without any foundation support consideration can only go so far in providing your body with an ideal sleeping surface.

Sea Sickness

While the motion of the ocean may be soothing for some people to sleep on, it can induce uncomfortable nausea for anyone prone to motion sickness.

Stink Factor

Waterbeds have a reputation for exuding unpleasant odors. For one, the scent of new vinyl can be pretty robust, emitting an unpleasant “fresh from the factory” odor that can take days to dissipate. However, this isn’t the only smell water beds can have. Due to the environment water creates, there is a prevalent potential for waterbeds to develop a musty, moldy odor, which is why waterbeds require regular water treatments using water conditioning chemicals. Despite keeping up with periodic water treatments, the smell can still develop, leaving you forced to deal with difficult to remove odors that will require extensive cleaning to alleviate the unwanted stench.

Expensive Sheets

A hard-sided waterbed generally has a vinyl mattress that fits well within the wooden frame. The design simplifies moving these beds from one place to another, as well as to upstairs rooms. However, finding sheets is a bit of a problem. When you shop for them, you won’t be able to use standard sizes, which means that you will likely have to pay extra for specialized waterbed-specific sheets.

Throws Off Your Groove

Do you know a set of spouses who got one and shortly after that had it replaced, leaving you to wonder, “why did the couple get rid of their waterbed”? Some individuals maintain that being intimate on a waterbed is superior since the movement of the water helps to enhance their pleasure.

In this category, everything is a personal opinion. However, there are often more complaints than praises from waterbed love makers due to the excessive bouncing experienced while being physical. All that frequent bouncing can make it difficult to establish a rhythm in your movements to serve your partner and vice versa best.

Prone To Wear

Some believe their waterbed will always be there for them. Sadly waterbeds have to be replaced over time due to the aging vinyl shell becoming hard, brittle, and prone to cracking that can cause water to leak into your bedroom. While you may be able to ignore a few holes in an older traditional mattress, it is much harder to overlook puddles in your bedroom from a waterbed past its prime.

Even if the waterbed isn’t that old, despite waterbed vinyl durability, the internal bladder always has a chance of puncturing due to accident. Just a friendly cat kneading on your waterbed is all it can take to spring a watery disaster into action that can lead to a catastrophic incident and costly water damage repair bills for your home.

Potential for Increased Insurance Premiums

Because waterbeds can break at any time, renters’ and homeowners’ insurance premiums are typically more significant than they would be for non-liquid-filled mattress types. The insurance cost of this product may be a lot more than you think since it protects against water damage, thus making the logistical expenses of waterbeds unreasonable for some.

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

SIDS sometimes referred to as crib death, is the sudden and unexplained death of a baby younger than 1-year-old. Most children who die from SIDS have one or more risk factors, but thankfully, parents can control some risks.

Parents have learned to take one known preventative action by ensuring their baby only sleeps on a firm mattress or other firm surface covered by a fitted sheet. It is known that if a baby is at risk for SIDS, they should never be laid down to sleep on a soft surface such as a fluffy blanket, sofa, sheepskin, cushion, and of course, a waterbed. Out of fear for their child’s health and safety, many parents choose not to buy waterbeds for this reason.

More Downsides

Other considerations that could cause you to think twice before buying a waterbed include how difficult they are to get in and out of, high maintenance and energy expenses, and the potential for mechanical components to fail, such as the internal heating element.

As consumer awareness grew for the pain and complications that came with owning a waterbed, they rapidly fell out of fashion throughout the ‘90s, becoming near obsolete by the end of the decade. Waterbed dealers faced growing competition from companies offering mattress innovations that provided exceptional flexibility and softness. All while being spared the need to run a garden hose through the house to maintain them.

Despite having fallen out of fashion with the majority, waterbeds are still an option for an ever-increasingly small group of consumers. These enthusiasts could never imagine buying another type of bed because, to them, nothing could ever trump the experience of sleeping on their beloved retro water bed.

Lucky for them, waterbeds are still in production today, but at a vastly reduced rate from their 80’s heyday. Today’s waterbeds come with more convenient features like foam padding and interior fibers that minimize wave motion down to a more tolerable level. The innovative new models are high-tech, made of tubes or liquid holding bladders that individually take in water rather than filling the entire mattress. More contemporary water beds also feel more stable on the whole and less like a giant wobbly water balloon. They are also lighter weight and much less challenging to relocate when moving.

For most consumers, though, it is hard to break the negative connotation they hold for this type of bed, which is why so few mattress dealers carry waterbeds today. Retailers who continue selling them admit to facing a constant uphill battle attempting to get past consumer perceived prejudice to even hearing the dreaded word “waterbed.”.

Waterbed sellers now use clever semantic tactics to attract consumers by calling them “flotation beds.” Often, even if a bed shopper sits unknowingly on one and finds they enjoy the feel of it in the showrooms, once they learn it’s a waterbed, they tend to choose a different mattress for that very reason. A far cry from the consumer excitement and curiosity once herald by these mattresses.

Making The Switch From A Waterbed

Are you looking to migrate your bed away from one filled with water to something with fewer hassles that will do better for your body? Today’s mattresses offer many options that make them more comfortable, durable, and supportive than those of the past. For those who have slept on a waterbed for an extended period and determine it is doing more harm than good, it isn’t uncommon for them to jump from super soft to the other extreme, choosing to trade in their waterbed for a firm or even extra firm mattress.

Switching from one extreme to the next is generally not an ideal approach. For most people, the best alternative to a waterbed is a bed with exceptional firm support topped with an extra soft cushiony top layer. Still, you don’t want to feel like you’re being swallowed by the mattress or sinking into it as you would in a hammock.

Innerspring mattresses now come with a mix of wrapped coils, traditional coils, and foam layers – while memory foam materials provide ideal sleeping characteristics thanks to the ability to distribute a person’s weight evenly, reducing unbalanced body pressure. The shoulder and hip parts of your body can sink into memory foam, creating an ideal ergonomic resting position. Blood circulation is not significantly pinched, muscles are held smoother, and skin is better nourished with blood. Due to the open cell structure, excellent ventilation is provided through memory foam as well.

Sleep & Spas’s Waterbed Mattress Alternatives

A mattress with a good foundation and a soft top can be found in memory foam mattresses and pillow top innerspring mattresses that combine these technologies. There are many options to choose from, and while we always suggest testing before you buy, we have put together a list of some of our favorite waterbed alternative suggestions. Check them out, and feel free to reach out with any questions about these and any other mattresses you are considering.
Mattress Type: Innerspring

Estate Collection Hurston Luxury Plush

Comfort Level: Plush

Collection: S&F Estate

Mattress Type: Innerspring

Hurston Luxury Plush Euro Pillowtop

Comfort Level: Plush

Collection: S&F Estate

Estate Collection - Rockwell Luxury Plush

Mattress Type: Innerspring

Comfort Level: Plush

Collection: S&F Estate

Estate Collection - Rockwell Luxury Plush Euro Pillow

Mattress Type: Innerspring

Comfort Level: Plush

Collection: S&F Estate

Lux Estate Collection - Cassatt Luxury Plush Euro Pillowtop

Mattress Type: Innerspring

Comfort Level: Plush

Collection: S&F Lux Estate

Reserve Collection - Reserve No. 3

Mattress Type: Innerspring

Comfort Level: Medium Firm

Collection: S&F Reserve

Tempur-Flex Supreme Breeze

Comfort Level: Medium Feel

Mattress Type: Memory Foam

Tempur-Luxeadapt Soft

Comfort Level: Plush

Mattress Type: Memory Foam

Softness rating: “SOFT”

Saratoga Collection - Purgel Memory Foam 12” Mattress

3” Ventilated I-Gel Cooling Memory Foam

Comfort Level: Plush

Tempur-Proadapt Soft

Mattress Type: Memory Foam

Let Sleep & Spas Help You Find the Perfect Waterbed Replacement

If you’re in the market for a traditional waterbed mattress alternative, we can help! The knowledgeable Sleep & Spas’ team has an exceptional understanding of all types of mattress shoppers’ issues and needs. We can assist you in finding the perfect mattress that will significantly improve your sleep quality and comfort to help you feel better rested and ready to tackle every new day as they come!

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