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."
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,"
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?