When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, it seemed as if everyone I knew had a water bed. Once a groovy, sexy novelty found only in the Playboy mansion, it'd entered the mainstream, with water bed stores on every corner.
In sixth grade, I even got my own. It wasn’t the one with a stereo and reading lamp built into the headboard that I really wanted, but it was a water bed, and it was dreamy. I could heat it up on cold Nebraska winter nights, or cool it down in warmer months. Every night I drifted off to its soothing slosh, and despite a minor disaster when it sprang a leak due to a rogue earring, I couldn’t imagine sleeping on any other kind of bed.
At the peak of water bed mania, in the mid-1980s, it was 1 in 5 mattresses sold in this country. But after that, poof.
While I can’t remember when or why I got rid of it, my beloved water bed vanished, and everyone else got rid of theirs, too. I can’t remember the last time I saw a water bed in someone’s home, or passed a store selling it. Where the heck did all the water beds go and, more importantly, why?
The mysterious disappearance of the water bed, explained
According to Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and founder of Tuck, a website offering sleep products and information, there are several reasons water beds have seemingly gone the way of the dinosaur.
For one, companies such as Tempur-Pedic upped the mattress game with memory foam and other more-comfortable-than-box-spring offerings. For another, water beds were kind of a pain. They were heavy, moving one required draining the entire bed (I remember my dad dragging in the garden hose), and leaks were a frequent hazard.
“It got to the point where many landlords wouldn’t even allow a water bed inside of their buildings,” Fish says.
As the novelty wore off, sleep stores began to focus on higher-end conventional mattresses, and replacement parts for water beds became harder to find, Fish says.
A water bed revival?
But if you're getting nostalgic for those sweet waves rocking you to sleep, we have news: The inventor of the original water bed is launching a new, improved version.
Fifty years ago, Charlie Hall introduced the water bed to the modern world as part of his master’s thesis project at San Francisco State. (Fascinating fact: It started as a chair filled with Jell-O.) From there, he filed for a patent and launched the first water bed company.
Although Hall became a millionaire (through his water bed and other inventions), knockoffs of his bed abounded (awarding him millions more in patent infringement cases) before it fell out of favor. In his mind, the reason boils down to changing preferences in how people want beds to look.
"As time went along, a water bed's box-frame look went from groovy to ugly," he explains.
Customers wanted a sleeker look in their bedrooms. To accommodate this, Hall added more padding between the water and the body, which minimized a waterbed's original advantages: reduced pressure on the body and the ability to control the bed's temperature.
But after an overhaul, it's coming back for another round. Hall and his original business partner, Michael Geraghty, have recently introduced a new version of the water bed, dubbed Afloat.
This time, they kept it looking as much as possible like a traditional bed (no more boxy, hard frame), but held onto the things that made water beds so great in the first place.
"We put the baby back in with the bathwater," Hall says.
The Afloat is equipped with temperature control, an improved wave-suppression system, and a fabric cover that provides better body contouring. And this go-around, you don’t need to purchase special water bed sheets; any standard bed linens fit.
Hall says that while the new water beds are still not easy to move, they have streamlined assembly and maintenance, with detailed instructions, labeled parts, and a hose included.
“They can still be a pain, but we’re getting closer to the level of pain of other mattresses,” he says.
The Afloat bed costs $1,995 for a queen, and is available for preorder online. Or you can go to one of a handful of City Furniture (formerly Waterbed City) stores in South Florida.
Geraghty, who has been sleeping on one of the new beds for a year now, has been following up personally with each customer after their purchase, and says so far the response has been enthusiastic.
Do water beds have a future?
So will water beds make a comeback? Brian DeJesus, co-owner of American Sleep Center in Lancaster, PA, thinks it all depends on whether they develop a coolness factor with younger buyers—much the way once-passé wallpaper has been embraced by millennials.
“Most of the customers buying water beds today are people who have already owned a water bed from when they were popular," he explains. "So those people may not have too much of an impact on future mattress buyers. For water beds to become popular again, society would have to see them as 'cool' again.”