Where Did Waterbeds Go?
6 min read
Last Modified 12 February 2024 First Added 2 February 2024
Associated with counter-culture and ’70s free living, waterbeds were pitched as cool and sexy. However, they weren’t anything new, even back then. There’s some evidence of early “waterbeds” nearly 4000 years ago when they would fill goat skins with water and leave them to be warmed in the sun.
There’s not much information about what these filled goat skins were used for, but some believe it was to provide comfort for the sick. Others suggest they were used as beds and resting spots for royalty and the rich.
The earliest verified record, though, is from 1833 when Scottish doctor Neil Arnott created the “hydrostatic bed” to help with bedsores and alleviate back pain in bedbound patients.
So, with such a long history, where did they all go? They seem to fall abruptly out of fashion during the ’90s and are now almost impossible to find in regular homes. First, we’ll touch a little more on the history of waterbeds before identifying why they became popular and why they fell out of fashion.
Waterbeds weren’t just a fad. There’s a fair amount of evidence that they’re actually good for you. Physicians like Dr Arnott used them for immobile patients because the water-filled mattress would mould to the body’s contours and provide pressure relief. Additionally, more modern studies into waterbeds suggest they can help with back pain and reduce instances of bedsores.
However, like most things, waterbeds became iconic because of good marketing, not because of their health benefits. They were closely associated with rockstars and glamorous lifestyles – a TIME magazine article from 1971 talks about how Hugh Hefner had two in the Playboy Mansion, while an Aquarius advert from the time claimed: “Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep.”
|Persian goat skins used for a similar style sleep solution to modern waterbeds
|Dr Arnott “invents” the waterbed for medical use and writes about it in his book
|Waterbeds are mentioned in the novel “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell
|The USA Medical and Hospital Department issues a call for waterbed suppliers in newspapers
|Waterbeds seem to be commonly used in hospitals and are often cited in works of science fiction such as H.G. Wells’ “The Sleeper Awakes” and multiple works by Robert A Heinlein
|Robert Hall invents the modern waterbed in a design class at San Francisco State University
|Hall’s invention is patented
|Waterbeds became commercially available with sales peaking in the late ’80s
|Waterbeds declined in popularity and faded out of the cultural spotlight
In 1971, TIME claimed that waterbeds were set to become a “permanent fixture” in households, and it’s reported that in the late ’80s, nearly a quarter of mattresses sold in the USA were waterbeds. So, what happened to this billion-dollar industry?
Not many people were prepared to deal with the reality of upkeeping a water mattress. They hold hundreds of gallons of water, so filling them in your bedroom was often a huge challenge. You also need to top the water up to keep the right level of support and add water conditioner to ensure that the inside doesn’t go mouldy.
The mattress itself also needs maintenance as the vinyl will get brittle without the proper conditioning, which makes it more susceptible to splitting.
One issue that immediately comes to mind for most is what happens if they leak? While it’s easy to fix modern waterbeds with vinyl patch kits (similar to air mattresses), dealing with even small leaks can still be stressful. Though they’re very unlikely to burst, a tear is still possible and could be catastrophic, considering how much water the mattresses hold.
While there is evidence that waterbeds are good for bad backs, in practice, many found them to be uncomfortable long term. They disperse pressure better than even modern mattresses like memory foam because they are completely fluid, but that doesn’t mean they actually provide the support you need.
Since they’re, well, full of water, waterbeds tend to move around a lot. Quite a few people who bought one complained of something like sea sickness from the rocking and swaying. It also makes them impractical to sit on, which can be annoying if you get ready in your bedroom or like to work from bed.
However, there are modern “waveless” water mattresses with layers and chambers containing the water to reduce unwanted motion.
Ultimately, waterbeds fell out of fashion with the invention of more comfortable and easier-to-manage mattresses like memory foam, which hit the market in the early ’90s.
Yes! Despite rumours that waterbeds were banned, they never actually went away. Plenty of brands still sell the classic models, alongside modern updates like thermal controls. However, as mentioned, plenty of modern mattresses provide all the benefits that made waterbeds popular in the first place without any of the impracticalities.
If you’re interested in a waterbed but want something with less hassle, here are our favourite alternatives.
Our top recommendation is a memory foam mattress for that sink-in feeling that contours to your body as you sleep. One of the most popular mattress types, memory foam is super soft but still offers support to keep hips and back aligned for a good night’s sleep. Learn more about the pros and cons with our memory foam guide.
Latex is made from the rubber plant to create a soft, elastic mattress that is very similar to memory foam. However, latex mattresses can be cooler and offer firmer support as they don’t react to heat as much as memory foam.
These mattresses have a layer of gel either within the core or on top of the mattress to provide a soft, mouldable experience. ActiGel mattresses are great for temperature regulation as they keep you cool, which can be an issue with memory foam as it traps heat. You can also get gel on top of memory foam or pocket spring, giving you the hybrid benefits of each technology.
So, despite gaining huge popularity in the later parts of the 20th century, waterbeds are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Despite benefits like pressure relief, there were too many impracticalities, and the general public now prefers more modern mattresses. Compare those modern mattress types in our bed and mattress guide, or explore the rest of the Sleep Matters Club for more interesting sleep advice and trivia.