When I started in the waterbed business at the end of 1970, I thought we were going to change the world with our products.
The future looked bright and the popularity of waterbeds was on an upswing.
[long, pregnant pause]
How many people do YOU know who still sleep on a waterbed today?
Certainly, waterbeds have died out as a major mattress category, so it would be easy to say that they failed. Or maybe they were just a fad. As I look back from my 47 years hence vantage point, I’d argue that this isn’t true. In fact, I’d propose that waterbeds were phenomenally successful, winning the battle but unfortunately losing the war.
Think back to the 1970s (if your memory or your birthday goes that far back).
If you went to buy a mattress in the 70s, your choice of densities were firm or firmer. Mattresses were, of course, two sided, as they always had been since the earliest days of mattresses. They had a heavy duty coil spring system and minimal padding. Padding consisted of a compressed fiber pad, usually made of cotton (similar to a thick carpet pad), sheathed in a thin quilted cover. The whole mattress was 7 to 8″ thick.
Doctors of the 1970s (chiropractors had not hit the scene yet) recommended a firm mattress for back support. If you could sleep on the floor, that was the best thing for posture and support, they said.
Waterbeds broke all the rules. And people loved them.
Waterbeds were the diametrical opposite of the very firm mattresses doctors had been recommending for years for back relief.
Here’s how waterbeds work:
Water supports the body evenly due to the natural laws of hydraulics, pushing back with equal force to the force of the person’s body when lying down. Sleeping on a waterbed leaves you delightfully free of pressure points — you only experience conforming, enveloping support. So many benefits from a mattress that costs very little and lasts a very long time.
Bonus to the economy: in those days, a waterbed business was something that a young person with barely two nickels to rub together could start, feel good about, and feel they were saving consumers from some hard-as-a-rock torture rack known as the innerspring mattress. What better business to start could there be?
So if waterbeds were so wonderful, what happened to sales?
Truth be told, the waterbed people — many of them hippie, non-business types — were stupid. (Don’t get me wrong. We like hippies, but the waterbed industry hippies were apparently not in the right frame of mind to make good business decisions.) The public bought in to the idea of “flotation sleep” and often put up with inconvenience and sometimes poor quality, all to get that warm, wonderful sleep provided by natural water.
Over the industry’s 20-year heyday, consumers purchased between 25 and 30 million waterbeds. This surge in sales did not go unnoticed by the spring coil bed industry. While some of the “spring bed” manufacturers did add some waterbed-type beds to their lines, most did not. Instead, unlike the stupid waterbed people, the spring coil bed makers were smart.
Cheap waterbeds for everybody
Waterbed retailers tried to see how cheap they could sell their products. At the final showdown, waterbeds were available just about everywhere for $99 for any sized bed.
Now the spring bed folks, seeing the success of plush, conforming sleep surfaces, started making plush, even pillow top and Euro top mattresses, offering them to consumers for the unheard of prices of $1000 and more. All this at a time when those “firm,” thin mattresses (you know, the original types of mattresses) were selling from $200 to $400. I told you they were smart!
And thus the popularity of waterbeds waned, slumped, and slid out of the industry. But their influence can still be felt in the mattress industry today — literally.
Today, if you go shopping for a mattress, you can hardly find a truly firm model – everything is plush and thick. Even the “firm” mattresses are cushion firm or plush firm. We’re now in the era of the big, thick, fluffy mattress — at least if you’re shopping the mainstream lines.
So while it may be true that waterbeds are dead and gone, the legacy of the waterbed era is evident in the choices you find in mattress stores today. And for those customers who love their waterbed more than anything and refuse to give it up — good for you! You’ll find that we still stock waterbed mattresses and parts.