The Rise and Fall of the (Sexy, Icky, Practical) Waterbed

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In 1968 Charles Hall presented the waterbed as his Master's Thesis project to his San Francisco State University design class. While showcasing their work, students rotated through workshops to see each others inventions. Once they reached Hall's project - a vinyl mattress filled with heated water - the class never left. "Everybody just ended up frolicking on the waterbed," Hall recalls.

For the next twenty years, waterbeds were hot. They were The Bed of the Sexual Revolution. Hugh Hefner reportedly had a huge one covered in Tasmanian possum hair. Yes, possum.

Companies used that sex appeal to their advantage with slogans like, "Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep." and "She'll admire you for your car, she'll respect you for your position, but she'll love you for your waterbed." It worked.

"In Manhattan, the waterbed display at Bloomingdale's department store for a while was a popular singles meeting place. Sears, Roebuck and Holiday Inns are eying the beds, and Lake Tahoe's Kings Castle Hotel has already installed them in its luxury suites," Time wrote in 1971. "Playboy Tycoon Hugh Hefner has one--king-size, of course, and covered with Tasmanian opossum [sic]. The growing number of manufacturers and distributors, with such appropriate names as Aquarius Products, the Water Works, Innerspace Environments, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds and the Wet Dream, can hardly meet the demand. They have sold more than 15,000 since August."

By 1986, they had 20 percent of the bed market. Everyone wanted one. And then, as suddenly as they'd become cool, they became lame. Super lame. Like, mustache and shoulder pad lame.



Maybe it's time waterbeds made a comeback. Hall points out that he never intended for his invention to be so deeply associated with the icky-sexy '70s. He had bigger plans.

He wanted to change the way people thought about and used their furniture. At the time, Hall thought too much furniture design focused on style, and he wanted to shift the emphasis to comfort. He began by creating furniture that would eliminate pressure points and use heat to relax muscles. Hall's first crack at a product, a vinyl bag filled with 300 pounds of liquid corn-starch, failed: it reduced pressure points, but engulfed anyone who sat in it. Next, Hall thought Jell-o might solve the problem, but it still wasn't the right temperature or consistency.  

So he moved on, working on the object we spend the most time in. At the age of 24, Hall designed the modern waterbed: a vinyl water-filled bladder equipped with a temperature control device meant to synchronize with human body temperature. "I designed a serious sleep product," he says.

It's not hard to believe Hall. In the late 1960s, the design department was a hotbed of alternative technology. It was known for what historian Andrew Kirk modestly called a "free-form atmosphere." For example, in '67, famed designer J. Baldwin was there "rebuilding a giant camera from a U-2 spy plane he had purchased at a military surplus sale for thirty dollars." (One day, countercultural icon Stewart Brand showed up in a toga and a top hat to befriend Baldwin. The pair worked on a series of publications together, including the National Book Award Winning Whole Earth Catalog.) San Francisco State was a good place to be doing weird stuff with the things of modern life.

But perhaps it was inevitable that his work would be taken up by people intent on doing more in bed than sleeping. Hall's design was completed in the year of the "summer of love," after all.

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Hall wasn't the first to think about how nice it might be to sleep on heated water. In the early 1800s, to relieve patient bedsores, Dr. Neil Arnot created a 'hydrostatic bed' by covering a warm bath with India-rubber cloth and then sealing it with varnish to prevent leaks. In 1893 a British physician, Dr. Portsmouth, patented a similar invention. These early incarnations couldn't really contain heat or water, so they never garnered commercial success.

Then, in the early 20th century, Robert Heinlein's science fiction novels prophesied the modern waterbed, but he never actually built the bed.

I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements--an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.

Regardless of Heinlein's dreams, it wasn't until vinyl became widely used that a marketable waterbed was possible. Discovered in the 1800s, the plastic's first commercial uses didn't come along until the 1930s, when it was used to make shock absorber seals and synthetic tires. These successes, combined with the rubber shortage during World War II, led to further development. By 1968 vinyl's capabilities had expanded and diversified, providing Hall with a durable fabric for his bed.

With the right materials and design, people could finally realize the dream of sleeping on water! Hall figured he had a success on his hands, a product that would revolutionize sleep. But did people toss their Serta's for the bed that promised undisturbed sleep? "No. Absolutely not," sighs Hall, "They bought it for the sensual or the sexual part of it."

That sexual association, great marketing during the 1970s and early 1980s, became an albatross by the early 1990s. "It's no longer the new thing, so it doesn't have the cachet that it did ," explains Henry Petroski, an engineering professor at Duke University who focuses on product design. Not only was it the cool new gadget, but it emerged during a time when the culture embraced anything different, especially a product that embodied sexual liberation. It only worked in that context, Petroski says. When the spirit of the times changed, what had been James Bond became Austin Powers.

But the waterbed also had technological shortcomings. Waterbeds can spring leaks. They are heavy. The extra parts require maintenance. Moving one requires draining the bed - too much of a hassle for most people.  Even Hall admits that the bed was complicated and high maintenance.

As the market grew, vinyls became more sophisticated and refined. The older hard side "free flow" mattresses generated significant wave action, requiring stabilization time after any disturbance. But, the newer waveless waterbeds, combine air and water pockets, reducing this sensation while maintaining the bed's benefits. They also look more like "normal" beds, and less like Pleasure Pits.

Alas, the improvements might have come too late. Once the waterbed had shown that people were open to innovation in the bedroom, other less complicated beds, such as the Tempur-Pedic mattress, entered the market. These designs emulated the comfort of the bed without the hassle of the water.

People still associate waterbeds with their high maintenance past.  "Even if there aren't actual problems, people can imagine that there are problems that would do some damage," remarks Petroski.

Now Michael Spintman, a salesman at the Washington DC store Showman Furniture, has to trick his customers into buying waterbeds. Spintman shows the beds, but dares not mention their name. And even if customers are happy with the mattress's feel, once they discover it's a waterbed, they won't buy it. "Everybody who tries the ones we have on our floor is very happy with the feel, but some people won't get it just because it's a waterbed," explains Spintman, who not only owns a waterbed, but thinks it offers the best sleep out there.

So it goes. Waterbed market share drops and drops. Now, it hovers at something less than 5 percent, a technology that's seen better days.

But you have to wonder, whatever the waterbed's actual merits, what's it say about this country that in the American bed industry, sex no longer sells?

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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