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What Ever Happened To Waterbeds?

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Houston Librarian, YouTube

For kids and adults alike, waterbeds used to be the coolest—until suddenly they weren’t. After a heyday in the late 1980s in which nearly one out of every four mattresses sold was a waterbed mattress, the industry dried up in the 1990s, leaving behind a sense of unfilled promise and thousands upon thousands of unsold vinyl shells. Today, waterbeds make up only a very small fraction of overall bed and mattress sales. Many home furnishing retailers won’t sell them, and some that do say it’s been years since they last closed a deal.

So what happened? Although they were most popular in that decade of boomboxes and acid-washed jeans, waterbeds had been gaining steam since the late 1960s, and in retrospect seem to have more substance to them than other notorious fads. How did our enthusiasm for sleeping atop gallons and gallons of all-natural H2O drain away so quickly?

By some accounts, waterbeds date all the way back to 3600 BCE, when Persians filled goat-skin mattresses with water warmed by the sun. In the early 1800s, Dr. Neil Arnott, a Scottish physician, created a “hydrostatic bed” for hospital patients with bedsores. This was essentially a warm bath covered with a thin layer of rubber and then sealed up with varnish. In 1853, Dr. William Hooper of Portsmouth, England patented a therapeutic rubber mattress that could be filled with water. It, too, was for hospital patients suffering from poor circulation and bedsores. In the mid 20th century, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein—inspired by the months he spent bedridden with tuberculosis in the 1930s—described waterbeds in great detail in three of his novels. The beds he envisioned had a sturdy frame, were temperature-controlled, and contained pumps that allowed patients to control the water level inside the mattress. There were also compartments for drinks and snacks, which sounds really convenient. It was, according to Heinlein, “an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.”

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The inventor of the modern day waterbed was an industrial design student named Charles Hall, who in 1968 submitted a waterbed prototype (made with a vinyl mattress rather than a rubber one) for his masters thesis project. Hall wanted to rethink furniture design, and was taken with the idea of fluid-filled interiors. Before settling on the waterbed, he had tried filling a chair with 300 pounds of cornstarch gel, which quickly rotted. He also tried using JELL-O as a filling, with similarly disastrous results. The introduction of water fulfilled his vision without the ick factor. During the graduating class’s thesis workshop, Hall told The Atlantic, students ignored other projects and ended up hanging out on his waterbed.

Hall established his own company, Innerspace Environments, and began manufacturing waterbeds for sale throughout California. Early customers included the band Jefferson Airplane, as well as the Smothers Brothers. Eventually Hall’s bed, which he named “The Pleasure Pit,” made its way into 32 retail locations throughout the state. Success was short-lived, however, as cheap imitators quickly flooded the market. By the early 1970s, dozens of different companies were manufacturing waterbeds, feeding the growing demand for a groovy new way to … sleep.

Although many associate waterbeds with strait-laced suburban living, back in the ‘70s they were a symbol of the free-flowing counterculture movement—more likely to be sold with incense and Doors albums than with fluffy pillows and high thread count sheets. “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads” was how a New York Times story from 1986 described them. The names of manufacturers and distributors reflected this: Wet Dream, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds, and Aquarius Products were a few that rolled with the times.

Sex, of course, was a big selling point. “Two things are better on a waterbed,” an Aquarius ad stated. “One of them is sleep.” Another ad proclaimed, “She’ll admire you for your car, she’ll respect you for your position, and she’ll love you for your waterbed.” Hippies and hip bachelors alike were the target market for the bed that promised the motion of the ocean. Hall even got in on the act, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” setup, complete with contour pillows, color television, directional lighting, and a bar. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course—Hall made him one covered in green velvet, and Hef had another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair.

By the '80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. “It has followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda,” the Times noted. Indeed, waterbeds were available in a variety of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box frames. Allergy sufferers liked having a dust-free mattress, while back pain sufferers were drawn to the beds’ free-floating quality. Advertisements by sellers like Big Sur Waterbeds played up the health benefits with shirtless, beefy dudes like this one:

People were also eager to try a new spin on something as boring as a bed. Kids, especially, loved the squishy, gurgling weirdness of a waterbed. If you were a child of the '80s, it arguably was as close to a status symbol as you could get. Manufacturers, meanwhile, fed the demand with novelty frames, bunk beds, circular love nest beds, and even waterbeds for dogs. They also improved the experience with innovations like “baffles” that cut down on the wave motion many beds created, thereby addressing the one-of-a-kind problem of people getting seasick in their own bedrooms. As waterbed mania swept the nation, specialty outlets like Waterbed Plaza, Waterbed Emporium, and the Waterbed Store opened up shop, and wave after wave of cheesy local television ads followed.

By 1984, waterbeds were a $2 billion business. At the height of their popularity, in 1987, 22 percent of all mattress sales in the U.S. were waterbed mattresses.

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Here’s the thing about waterbeds, though: They were high maintenance. Installing one meant running a hose into your bedroom and filling the mattress up with hundreds of gallons of H2O—a precarious process that held the potential for a water-soaked bedroom. Waterbeds were also really, really heavy. In addition to the filled mattress, the frame—which had to support all that water weight—could be a back-breaker. When the mattress needed to be drained, an electric pump or some other nifty siphoning tricks were required. Waterbeds could also spring leaks (as Edward Scissorhands showed), which could be patched but, again, added to the cost and hassle.

In the '90s, it became clear that the novelty of waterbeds couldn’t overcome the additional work they required. By that time, competitors like Tempur-Pedic and Select Comfort were also coming out with mattress innovations that offered softness and flexibility without making customers run a garden hose through their second-floor bedroom window.

These days, the waterbed market is still going, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. Mattress models are lighter than the models of decades past, and come with nifty accessories like foam padding and interior fibers that further cut down on the wave effect. They’re also outfitted with tubes or “bladders” that take in water rather than the entire mattress, making the experience less like filling an enormous water balloon. Most models are quite sophisticated, in fact. The Boyd Comfort Supreme mattress has all the technical specs of a household gadget: three-layer lumbar support, four-layer reinforced corners, “thermavinyl” heat resistant bottom layer, five-layer wave reduction system. That’s a lot of layers! There are also airframe waterbeds that stand firm on their own, and sophisticated temperature-control devices that keep sleepers warm. Marty Pojar, owner of The Waterbed Doctor (which takes mainly online and phone orders), told The Orange County Register that most of his orders come from customers in the Midwest and Northeast, where customers want to hop into a warm bed on cold winter nights.

Like those who still play Sega Genesis or prefer a flip phone to an iPhone, waterbed customers are fiercely loyal to their retro trend. But their enthusiasm alone won’t likely bring waterbeds back to the mainstream. Indeed, even the name “waterbed” carries negative connotations, retailers note. Pojar prefers to call them “flotation” beds. A Washington D.C. furniture salesman interviewed by The Atlantic said he oftentimes doesn’t tell customers when they’re lying on a waterbed. "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," he said. These days, the most promising market for soft, squishy waterbeds may, oddly enough, be cows.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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