Last week I was chatting on the Retroist Discord and someone mentioned that their childhood friend had a waterbed. While not as popular as they once were, waterbeds, which are beds where the mattress is a giant bag of water, are still pretty well-known.
But they always seemed more of a bed for an adult. So why did, what I assume was the coolest kid in the eighties, have a waterbed?
As it turns out, by 1987 over 20% of beds sold in the United States were waterbeds. It was estimated to be a $2 billion dollar industry. This was “peak waterbed.”
Sadly that number has dwindled considerably and nowadays waterbeds make up something like 5% of beds sold in the United States.
As you will see in this chart, Coolness in the United States has been in a tailspin since 1987.
The history of the waterbed stretches back a long time. Maybe as far back as 3600 BCE when ancient Persians filled goat-skin mattresses with water.
One of the earliest modern mentions was in the 19th century, when a type of waterbed was invented by a Scottish physician named Neil Arnott. His Hydrostatic bed was:
a bath of water with a covering of rubber-impregnated canvas, on which lighter bedding was placed.
Arnott built his bed to help lessen bedsores on the sick. He didn’t patent the design, and soon other people were realizing its potential, and it started to get redesigned all around the world.
When rubber became more widely available, its water-holding capabilities were put to good use as the waterbed evolved. In 1871, Mark Twain mentions them in his article, A New Beecher Church. Twain wrote:
In the infirmary will be kept one or two water-beds (for invalids whose pains will not allow them to be on a less yielding substance) and half a dozen reclining invalid-chairs on wheels. The water-beds and invalid-chairs at present belonging to the church are always in demand, and never out of service
Twain wasn’t the only famous writer who mentioned waterbeds. One famous author not only mentioned them, but thought about them a lot.
Robert Heinlein was a prolific and gifted writer. He also mentioned waterbeds in several of his works, including Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Heinlein’s interest in waterbeds stemmed from a time when he was bedridden with tuberculosis. In an essay, Heinlein wrote:
I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements—an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.
Heinlein never built one of these waterbeds, but his interest had a legal side effect. When the inventor of the modern waterbed Charles Hall tried to get a patent, he was denied. Why? Because Heinlein’s writings about the bed were so numerous and descriptive.
While Heinlein was able to see the potential of waterbeds, when it came to predicting the future, he was rather hit or miss. In a 1952 issue of Galaxy Magazine, Heinlein made 19 predictions for the year 2000. He got a few of them right, probably most impressive was his vision of a mobile phone.
Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.
Galaxy Science Fiction
Two years before Heinlein made those predictions, the magazine they were published in, Galaxy Science Fiction, got its start. Published from 1950 to 1980, it would shine a light on the works of many of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century.
In addition to Heinlein, luminaries like Ray Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, George R.R. Martin, Joe Haldeman, and Joanna Russ could be found on its pages over the decades.
I would find old copies of Galaxy in my family’s basement as a kid and would marvel at the stories I found in them. Later, I picked up dozens of issues at garage sales for pennies.
For such important work, I am surprised at how affordable old issues still are, but if you do not have the space for a sprawling magazine collection, you should head over to the Internet Archive and browse the 353 issues they have available.
I was the token kid with a waterbed. Which is a bit odd because back in the late 80s, my family was not wealthy by any measure. My toy collection was mostly hand me downs. My clothes and shoes were never name brands. And we only had a VCR because my father used it for work.
For some strange reason, our local video rental shop also doubled up as a furniture store - one central counter with two very separate sides of the showroom floor. My routine at the time was to pick my video early and then wander over the the waterbeds and have a long lie down. When Mum came to get me, I asked if I could have it. This wasn’t completely out of the blue, I would often ask for all kinds of things when out. But on that particular day I struck gold! Mum agreed on the spot, went and spoke to the sales guy and arranged for delivery. I don’t know where she found the money and how she could have justified the purchase. But I do remember my Dad getting a bit upset about it when he got home from work when I excitedly told him about my new bed.
That bed got me so much millage with any guests that came over. The first thing I’d do if a new friend came over, was show them the bed. I have a photo somewhere of a birthday party of mine where at least 5 kids were on my bed at once smiling for the camera.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The thermostat was very easy to bump. Many a night, I went to go to bed only to find the mattress was stone cold. It didn’t matter if it was the hottest night in the middle of summer, you couldn’t sleep on it like that. It took about a day to heat up, so that meant a night on the lounge.
So who knows why I became a kid with a waterbed. Perhaps my Mum who also didn’t grow up with much, wanted to give me some luxury. She can’t really remember now. Whatever the reason, it was a great part of my childhood and for that I’ll always be in her debt.