Retro | 90s | 70s | 80s

Waterbeds Had A Crazy Beginning, But What Happened?

Listen. Waterbeds were the thing to have in the 80s and 90s. If you weren't sleeping on a giant water balloon, what were you doing?

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Probably the craziest thing about waterbeds is that they were invented in 1968 as a thesis project. Charles Hall created one while he was in design school as his Master's thesis, and since then he's never turned back.

"In each house I have a water bed," he said. "And you know what? I wouldn’t sleep on anything else. They are the most comfortable bed around."

"Each house" tells me he's a kajillionaire thanks to his jiggly invention.

Hall had set out to find a way to improve human comfort while sleeping, so he contacted doctors and physical therapists to get some ideas. He also patented the idea, because he clearly was not stupid.

The San Francisco State University magazine did a piece on Hall where we got to learn the original name of the waterbed, and it's glorious.

"His invention — [originally called] the "pleasure pit" — was an immediate hit with friends. After pitching the product to the nation's big mattress manufacturers without luck, he began manufacturing them himself. "We made 'em and sold 'em and delivered 'em," he says. His company, Innerspace Environments, eventually operated 32 retail stores in California.

Waterbeds, though popular, proved a tough way to make money, with patent infringements and competition from cheap imitators. Says Hall, "The public didn't know what to look for. A $29 bag of water is not the same thing as a $500 bed with a frame, a safety liner and a heater." Hall eventually won a $6 million lawsuit for patent infringement. But by then his patent had expired. The waterbed wave had peaked (in 1987 with 22 percent of the mattress market) and receded."

YES. IT WAS CALLED THE "PLEASURE PIT." Which I guess when you remember how they were marketed, it makes sense.

Charles Hall

By 1984, waterbeds were a $2 billion business.

But since then, they've all but disappeared. I guess people realized that filling a plastic case with gallons of water wasn't an easy task.

Maybe people realized that dragging a garden hose through your house was a recipe for disaster. A king-size waterbed weighs about 1600lbs, so there's no way you're filling that bad boy in the bathroom and dragging it to your room.

Or maybe people realized that a giant water balloon was a recipe for disaster, especially if you have pets.

"It took a whole day to fill it up," says Bill Jacques, a former waterbed owner. "Then the cat promptly walked over it and her claws left a sprinkling trail of mini geysers. So I spent another whole day emptying the water and applying patches."

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Or maybe everyone just started to feel bad for Edward Scissorhands and gave them up.

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The reality is, waterbeds still exist, even though they only make up about 5% of mattress sales in the country. They're a little more refined now, and won't cost you any more money than a normal mattress does.

"Everybody who tries the ones we have on our floor is very happy with the feel, but some people won't get it just because it's a waterbed," says one furniture salesman in Washington.

Would you be down to get a new waterbed? Or should that be left in the past?

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