Comparable to that immediate disappointment you feel looking at your own life accomplishments after learning that Joan of Arc was 19 when she was burnt at the stake, finding out that (like me) the inventor of the waterbed was a 24 year old masters student has got me thinking: what have I even done with my life? What metaphorical piece of nautical furniture can I give to the world?
In the post-waterbed society we’re living in now – where we’re all stuck with boring, un-aquatic mattresses like chumps – the waterbed is a virtually forgotten phenomenon. It’s one of those trends that if you do think about it, is completely bewildering. Yet back in its glory days, the waterbed was a $2.23 billion dollar industry that made up 22 percent of US mattress sales. They were so commonplace that many college dormitories and landlords needed to establish bans on them.
What makes the waterbed a particularly fascinating craze though, is that the bed’s engrained erotic reputation is an angle which its student inventor, Charles Hall, hadn’t intended (he did call his first prototype the ‘pleasure pit’ though, so he has to wear some of the blame).
Beginning as a thesis project in 1968, Hall was a Californian design student whose attempts to create the perfect chair led to the development of the ‘modern-day’ waterbed. This idea was not a new concept, as a similar ‘hydrostatic bed’ being had been created in the 1880s by a Scottish physician, Dr. Neil Arnott, for hospital patients with bedsores. However Hall’s ability to utilize vinyl instead of rubber improved older models, as the bed was now much more durable and could contain heat.
Like Dr. Arnott, Hall was more enthusiastic about the potential health benefits of sleeping on waterbeds compared to normal mattresses, such as asthma relief and back support. Yet the bed’s rising popularity became increasingly connected to the sexual liberation movement – a status further solidified by Hugh Hefner in 1971 when he publically claimed he had a waterbed covered in Tasmanian possum fur (an image I could’ve done without).
Waterbed advertisements and marketing frequently appealed to sexuality, seen in a 1986 New York Times article on waterbeds which cheekily begun, "filled with up to 250 gallons of water and who knows how many tons of sexual promise". Many commentators who now reflect on the waterbed’s short-lived success from the 1970s up to its gradual decline in the 1990s, believe that the historical context of the sexual liberation was integral to the waterbeds initial charm. After all, beyond the erotic aspect, the appeal of the waterbeds can be easily overshadowed by how incredibly high maintenance they are. Following the bed’s lengthy installation, it required electrical heating, regular cleaning and, shock-horror, the cheaper ones would often spring leaks.
In hindsight, sleeping on top a glorified pool tarp probably always had a used-by date, once the novelty wore off or the harsh reality set in that sex and sea-sickness were not a great combination. Yet from a waterbed half-full perspective, the commercial success of an invention that we look back on and can’t believe was ever successful is actually quite comforting. Hall’s waterbed inadvertently took on a different meaning than he initially hoped, but maybe this was an inevitable consequence of people engaging with what he had created.
[My family beach-house actually came with a waterbed back in 1998 when we bought it – I’m still incredibly shitty with my parents for getting rid of it straightaway!!! Who wouldn’t want a second hand waterbed?]