March 31, 2020

If you were around in the 70s and 80s, you might remember the allure of sleeping atop a vinyl mattress filled with heated water. A mattress that cradled and rocked you to sleep like soft ocean waves.

The epitome of cool — and quite the status symbol — during those decades, interest in waterbeds since then has gradually trickled away, leaving a once-robust$2 billion-dollar-a-year industry in shambles.

By 2013, sales of waterbeds accounted for only 5% of mattress industry profits, signaling a drought of interest in this once-popular sleep fad.

So, where did the idea of sleeping on water originate — and how has it transformed through the years?

A Brief History of Sleeping on Water

The modern-day waterbed is a far cry from the ancient model, specifically, aninnovative Persian design from 3600 B.C.E that involved filling goatskins with warm water.

The first contemporary waterbed was developed bydesign student Charles Hall in response to his Master’s thesis project for San Francisco University in 1968 — the Summer of Love. Appropriately, his design became synonymous with sexual fantasy and a good old-fashioned romp in the hay — or the trough in this case. 

And the public agreed. The New York Timesonce reported, “Two things are better on a waterbed. And one of them is sleeping.”

This focus on the sexy side of sleeping brought notoriety — and revenue — to the waterbed market and high-profile buyers like Hugh Hefner helped fan the flames of popularity. The beds enjoyed a heyday that lasted into the early 90s, whenone in five mattresses sold was still a waterbed. 

So, what happened to the cachet of floating into a deep and dreamless sleep?


Water Fall — The Decline of the Waterbed

Despite the promise and hype, waterbeds didn’t make a lasting impact on the mattress industry. While some of that can be chalked up to the fickleness of consumer tastes, there are some pretty good reasons why waterbeds are not the greatest long-term choice for a mattress. 

  1. Size — and Weight — Matters

Waterbeds are big — and heavy. A king-sized model weighs nearly1800 pounds when filled, and that’s not including the weight of the bed frame. Because of this, many rental properties don’t allow waterbeds on site, since they may put undue stress on floor structures that can lead to significant damage.

  1. A Heater is Essential

You can sleep on a waterbed without a heater, but you’ll be sorry if you do. The cool water acts as a heat sink and draws warmth from your body, leaving you chilled. But, once you add a heater, you’ve also added to your electric bill — an average of$19 per month when you make your bed every day and up to $30 a month if you don’t.

  1. Going with the Flow

While it might seem idyllic to sleep on the rolling waves, the reality is much harsher. Every toss and turn leads to sloshing sounds and motion that can disrupt your — or your partner’s — sleep. And, since getting in and out can be difficult, those middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom can leave you wide awake.

  1. Leaks Happen

Got a cat with claws? Dogs whose nails need a trim? Or perhaps just zippers on your clothes? Then a waterbed may not be the best choice. Leaks can be difficult to find and patch and if they happen while you’re away, they can cause a lot of water damage should the entire mattress full of liquid seep out. 

The Tide Turns — Are Waterbeds Resurfacing?

In an effort to keep up with more innovative sleep solutions surfacing in the mattress industry, today’s waterbed manufacturers are attempting to breathe new life into this fad from the past.

Some modern versions use memory foam with temperature control and baffles inside the bed to make the sleep experience less “jiggly.” However, these modifications don’t address the bed’s significant weight, it’s propensity for leaking, or energy usage. And even with baffles, a waterbed still provides significantly more motion to the ocean than traditional mattresses, which can contribute to sleep disruption.

While some may want to revisit the good old days by purchasing one of these restyled “flotation beds,” most consumers who want a good night’s sleep will settle for a test sail on the waterbed showroom floor — and then choose one of the industry’s more supportive, quiet, and sleep-conducive mattresses.