St. George News asks: Whatever happened to the water bed?

ST. GEORGE — Once a fixture in many American homes from sometime in the 1970s to late ’90s, St. George News set out to find the answer to the all-important question: Whatever happened to the water bed?

Waterbed, undated | Photo in public domain, St. George News

The furniture item secured more than 20% of the mattress market in the U.S. during the late 1980s and could be found on top of shag carpets in homes across the country next to the Boom Box and Cabbage Patch dolls.

“In 1986 the annual sales of the ‘flotation sleep industry’ rose to nearly $2 billion,” Henry R. Robinson from the Waterbed Manufacturers Association told the New York Times in August 1986.

They were once the thing to have and were even featured in Time Magazine in 1971. Decades later, the water bed would all but vanish.

St. George News set out to to ask local residents and visitors their opinion on what caused the water bed to become nearly extinct.

People really loved the water bed because it just conformed to your body,” Ricky Hymer from the Mattress Store on Bluff Street told St. George News in the summer of 2017.

However, Tempur-Pedic came out with a mattress that provided the same level of comfort, pressure relief and support, Hymer said, but without the risk of leaks, water damage and motion transfer. The bed was also difficult to move, with filling, heating and assembling that required a great deal of time and effort.

“When Tempur-Pedic really started gaining ground, people saw the water bed phasing out,” Hymer said.

See St. George News Reporter Cody Blowers ask the community about the water bed in the media player at the top of this report.

Many believe the iconic bag of water sitting inside the wood-frame box was something new as it gained popularity, but that’s not actually the case.

The earliest recorded use of the item was more than 3,000 years ago when Persians slept on beds made of goatskin bags filled with water, according to the British Waterbed Company, the United Kingdom’s oldest water bed manufacturer.

During the 19th century, physicians marketed the bed as having health benefits, and it finally hit the U.S. 150 years later when San Francisco State University student Charles Hall presented the water bed in his final thesis for a design class in 1968.

Hall refined its construction by using better materials and modernized production methods. The bed was the byproduct of an earlier invention in his apartment, which he called “The Incredible Creeping Chair.”

“I built a chair that was 300 lbs. of liquid starch encased in a vinyl skin. You would sit in this thing and it would creep up around you,” Hall said, according to a Time Magazine article in 1970.

The water bed fared much better, and in 1971, Hall obtained a patent and later became a wealthy man.

Water bed facts

  • A water bed can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, depending on the size and design.
  • It has a life span of 10 to 15 years and can last even longer based on the level of care and maintenance.
  • It would be virtually impossible to burst a water bed mattress, as it has no internal pressure.
  • The risk of a water bed falling through the floor is the same as an aquarium, washing machine or refrigerator falling through the floor.

Some believe the bed’s downfall was caused by a drop in domestic latex production, while others think the rental market is to blame for prohibiting the beds – or that it seemed to weigh 100,000 pounds when it came time to move it.

Regardless, as time went on, convenience and ease eventually prevailed.

While the old wood-framed water bed designs are an endangered species, a modern, more sophisticated model similar to regular box spring set may be making a comeback, complete with a mattress filled with H2O.

Ed. note: This story and accompanying video was originally published in St. George News’ July 9, 2017, edition.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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