Fads from the Past: The Waterbed

Fads from the Past: The Waterbed

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Carolyn Purnell
Mar 18, 2015
(Image credit: Lindsey Jochets)

While waterbeds themselves may have been known for their gentle undulations, the rise and fall of their popularity was rather precipitous. In the 1970s and 80s, they were all the rage, and in 1987, waterbeds accounted for 22% of all bed sales. But by the 1990s, the love affair had cooled, and now waterbeds are mostly a thing of the past.

The Rise:

In 1968, San Francisco State University master's student Charlie Hall developed an "incredibly horrible thing." Using 300 pounds of liquid starch and a great deal of vinyl, he produced a chair that he hoped would revolutionize modern ideas of comfort. Instead, it tended to consume its sitters, and Hall gave it the affectionate nickname, "The Incredible Creeping Chair."

The starch chair may not have worked out, but another of Hall's prototypes did. By changing the starch to water and the chair to a mattress, Hall initiated a veritable sleeping revolution that took the U.S. by storm. Initially he manufactured the beds at home and sold them by word of mouth. By 1971, Hugh Hefner had proudly declared his devotion to the new bed, boasting that he had one covered in Tasmanian opossum fur.

Soon, everyone wanted to have a waterbed, and knock-offs could be found far and wide, even selling for prices under $100, as this ad from the 1971 Chicago Reader shows.

(Image credit: Chicago Reader)

Hall actually wasn't the first person to dream of sleeping on a softly undulating bed. Early prototypes of "hydrostatic" beds appeared in the early 1800s as a form of bedsore relief for patients confined to their beds. But it wasn't until modern vinyl technologies improved that the materials were ready for Hall's splashy invention.

Why:

Hall's impetus for designing the waterbed rarely matched up to the desires to buy one. At its inception, the waterbed was intended to change how people engaged with their furniture. Hall believed that too many people focused on style rather than comfort, so he sought to create a bed that would reduce physical stress and offer therapeutic benefits to sore bodies. The water-filled, temperature-controlled device was not simply a novelty. In the words of Hall it was "a serious sleep product."

But apparently, many companies did not get the memo about its seriousness, and soon the waterbed became known for its sexier side. A 1986 New York Times Article noted that waterbeds were "filled with up to 250 gallons of water and who knows how many tons of sexual promise." Hugh Hefner's advocacy probably didn't help, and apparently, the sexual connotation of the beds proved so powerful that the waterbed section of Bloomingdale's in Manhattan became a popular singles' mingling ground. And even though waterbeds proved popular with children, their sexual connotations are still revealed this 1981 ad, which referred to them as "bad beds."

That said, their bad connotations apparently didn't deter this girl from wanting one:

Or this elderly couple, for that matter:

The Fall:

Between 1990 and 2001, the market share for waterbeds had dropped from 17% to 6%, and their decline has not stopped. While sex may have initially helped them sell, ultimately, their sexual connotations helped sound the death knell for the product.

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 (The Atlantic).

Aside from changing cultural values, the beds were heavy, difficult to move, and often sprung leaks (particularly the cheaper models). Installation, cleaning, and maintenance was not nearly as easy as that associated with a traditional mattress, and the thermostat required additional electricity usage. Many landlords and dormitories forbade the beds, and generally speaking, convenience and ease prevailed.

The waterbed may be gone, but it is far from forgotten. Charles Hall (who still reports sleeping on waterbeds), maintains that the product fulfilled many of his original intentions when it came to changing concepts of comfort. “It used to be ‘firmer is better,’” He reported, but “water beds changed what people look for in a mattress. The Tempur-Pedic and the memory-foam things and pillow tops are all about making a bed conform to you.”º

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