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Houston Librarian, YouTube
Houston Librarian, YouTube

What Ever Happened To Waterbeds?

Houston Librarian, YouTube
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.”

TheClassicSports, YouTube

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.

Ranger232, YouTube

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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holidays
A Brief History of Black Friday
iStock
iStock

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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