The story of the waterbed is just like to that of any great tragic hero.
From their unlikely beginnings in the 1960’s, these remarkable mattresses rapidly shot up to become one of the most popular mattresses on the market—only to have it all come crashing down around their heads in the following decades.
Did waterbeds deserve this, or is their current disgrace just a fluke of history?
Why were waterbeds so popular in their day… and could they ever make a comeback?
The Invention of the Waterbed
The story of the waterbed begins with an industrial design student by the name of Charles Hall.
Hall wanted to completely rethink the way we thought about furniture, and he started experimenting with a lot of different ideas.
He was particularly taken with the idea of fluid-filled furniture—that is, basically filling big bags of stuff up with liquids to provide better support.
Hall’s first idea was a failure—he tried filling up a “chair” with 300 pounds of cornstarch, which rotted and also basically enveloped anyone who tried to sit in that.
He then tried experimenting with JELL-O, which also went about as well as could be expected, before finally settling on his design for the waterbed as his Master’s thesis project at San Francisco State University.
The idea was basically to fill up a big vinyl bag with water that could be custom-heated to the perfect temperature for any sleeper, put this on a wooden bedframe and foundation, and call it a mattress.
He demonstrated his invention at the end-of-year student showcase, and it was a massive hit!
Everybody wanted a turn trying out the waterbed, and within the space of just a couple years, these mattresses were selling by the thousands.
By the 1980s, waterbed sales made up a full fifth of the mattress market.
Everybody wanted these things—they were practically flying off the shelves.
Why Were They So Popular?
Of course, looking back at the massive success of waterbeds in these couple decades in the mid-20th century, you’ve got to wonder: why were these things so popular then, and what happened to them now?
Before we can start to really answer this question, it’s first worth remembering what the mattress market really looked like in those days.
Memory foam mattresses, for instance, did not exist until the 1970s, when NASA invented memory foam to cushion its astronauts during takeoff.
And while latex mattresses did exist, they weren’t really a major part of the market (even less so than today).
Pretty much everybody was sleeping on classic innersprings, and even those didn’t have a huge variety.
Waterbeds were new, they were more comfortable than most widely-available mattresses those days, and they were also capitalizing on highly lucrative craze—the Sexual Revolution.
Waterbeds = Sex (Apparently…)
The 60’s and 70’s were a sexy time to be alive.
The free love movement was all the rage, and the sexually liberated woman was the new ideal.
Sex in marketing was becoming a whole lot less taboo, and hot new products like the waterbed were quick jump on the old “sex sells” bandwagon.
“Two things are better on a waterbed,” one slogan claimed. “One of them is sleep.”
Hugh Hefner had a king-sized waterbed covered in possum fur, and a romp on a heated vinyl sack full of water was apparently what got people hot and bothered back in the day.
It was a strange time.
Is Sex Better On a Waterbed?
So… were people back then right?
Is sex actually better on a waterbed?
For some people, the answer might actually be yes.
For one thing, they’re extremely discreet, with no squeaky coils to wake the kids or anyone else who might be in your house.
They also have super easy cleanup, since fluids can’t stain or penetrate through the vinyl cover.
(This is nice, since stains like that can void a lot of mattress warranties.)
That said, though, there are also a number of disadvantages to sex on a waterbed.
They have basically no bounce, which some owners say makes it a lot more difficult to get into a good rhythm.
In fact, the wave action brought on by waterbed sex can actually make some people a little queasy.
A lot of waterbeds are also difficult to move on (although this is mostly true of the cheaper models).
So, while some people might find waterbed sex exactly what the doctor ordered, others might find themselves a little better off on a more traditional mattress.
Other Assets of Waterbeds
Even if their fun-time features aren’t quite your thing, though, waterbeds also come with a lot of other assets.
First of all, a lot of people simply like the feeling of lying on a mattress filled with water.
It feels like you’re floating in a perfectly-heated pool, only there’s no chance of you sinking or getting splashed.
A lot of people find this incredibly relaxing.
Additionally, the ability to adjust your waterbed’s thermostat pretty much eliminates most issues people have with sleeping hot or cold.
According to mattress review aggregator Sleep Like the Dead, only around 1% of waterbed owners complain about sleeping hot—by far the smallest number of any mattress type.
It’s hard to see how you can feel too warm in bed when you can just get up and change the temperature whenever you want!
Waterbeds also ready contour to the shape of your body better than pretty much any other products out there, and they do this instantly—instead of having the delay you have to get used to on memory foam.
They also tend to be fairly long-lasting (although you might have to patch up the occasional pinhole leak), and if you have dust mite allergies, these are pretty much immune to infestations.
So, Where Did They All Go?
With all these benefits, you might actually be considering investing in a waterbed yourself (in which case, I’d recommend having a look at our complete guide to the best waterbeds out there)!
Still, though, you’re probably wondering where all the waterbeds went if they work this well.
In part, it was probably just a twist of fate.
Waterbeds were sexy for the generation that came of age in the 70’s and 80’s—but as with all sexiness, this kind of afterglow only lasts so long.
Part of the issue was that people started coming up with alternatives.
Memory foam mattresses started hitting the market in a big way, and innerspring technology started really taking off.
By the 90’s, waterbeds were starting to be seen as quirky artifacts, and today, a lot of salesmen actually have trouble selling anything labeled a “waterbed.”
They’ve had to come up with all sorts of alternative ways to refer to them, and even still, a lot of people refuse to seal the deal once the find out they’ve been testing a waterbed.
There’s a big stigma against them!
That said, it might be a bit of a stretch to paint waterbeds as too much of a victim.
They come with a lot of real drawbacks, as well…
The Problem With Waterbeds
The biggest problems with waterbeds all stem from exactly one thing—the fact that they’re beds supported entirely with water!
It’s impossible, for instance, to move a full waterbed.
You have to drain it before you can move it anywhere, since the water is just too heavy to do anything with otherwise.
Waterbed maintenance also tends to be a bit annoying, since they can indeed spring leaks if you’re not careful.
These usually aren’t too serious—there are failsafes in place, so you’re probably not going to end up flooding your entire room—but leaks are still annoying, and obviously not something you’re going to have to deal with on pretty much any other kind of mattress.
Waterbeds also tend to have fairly limited motion isolation, and keeping them heated—nice as it might feel to slip onto a nice, heated bed in the cold winter months—will tack on a couple extra dollars to your electric bill, although people’s perceptions of this are often a pretty exaggerated.
In reality, waterbeds usually only cost about $10 to keep heated each month, and if you feel like it, you can probably balance this out by just keeping your room hotter or cooler than you would otherwise.
Could Waterbeds Make a Comeback?
So, after all these years, is it still possible for waterbeds to make a comeback?
It’s always tough to say what’s going to get popular and what isn’t, but at this point, it doesn’t really seem like that’s going to happen any time soon.
Waterbeds are incredibly unpopular right now.
They make up only around 5% of the market, and even here at Mattress-Guides.net, we’ve had trouble finding enough reviews to give top-quality descriptions of various models’ pros and cons.
Still, when you get down to it, waterbeds really aren’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think.
They’re quirky and they’ve got a couple issues, but there’s also a reason why these things got so popular to begin with.
And in the future… who knows?
Maybe you could be one of the first to ride the next waterbed wave!
Founder and Owner
Ted is the founder and owner of Mattress Guides and is an expert in his field. Ted believes that having the right mattress is key to getting a good night’s sleep and feeling well-rested in the morning.
Updated at November 6, 2020