Whatever happened to the waterbed?
In a recent article in the New York Times about the fact-checking website snopes.com, one of the editors of that site opined that now the election was over they would have less fact-checking to do and have more time to write other articles, such as why waterbeds have declined in popularity. It turned out not to be the case - fake news and internet rumors continue to flourish.
Since she no longer has time to tackle the subject, I thought I would give it a shot. Not many people today even know what waterbeds are, other than a relic of the 1970's. At one time, the waterbed was a very desirable object, a consumer purchase for many 20- and 30-something baby boomers.
I recall in the era that many friends of mine had them and they were considered an object of desire. I myself even bought a hybrid waterbed in the early 1980s, one that used water tubes inside a conventional mattress, which eliminated the messy problem of trying to get sheets to fit your waterbed. It also reduced the tendency to feel like you were sleeping on a plastic baggie full of water.
Toward the end of their reign, waterbed manufacturers came up with hybrid designs which looked and functioned more like regular mattresses.
Waterbeds are a classic example of one of those products that is advertised on the premise that your life will be divided into two portions. First, there is the early dark grey period of your life before you order a water bed when your back hurt and nothing was quite right. You had no friends and your dog was ugly. Second, there is the dawn with the new age when you own a waterbed and your life is perfect and everything is wonderful and your back feels wonderful and life is great. If only you had a waterbed!
Of course, none of this is true. But it was the sales pitch which is made on the television with the latest Ronco chicken broiler or whatever product is deemed to be desirable. Informercial pitch men use this selling scheme, showing those dorky "before" people struggling to cut a tomato with some dumb carbon-steel French knife. The "after" people are cheerfully cutting through a penny with their ginzu knives - and slicing tomatoes to boot! In the before picture people are shown as miserable sod whose lives have no meaning or goal. In the after picture are seen happy sunny smiley faces of people who finally achieved the American dream. If only you had the product, your life would be changed forever. That is the covert and sometimes overt message of marketing, regardless of the product.
Waterbeds, of course have a potent additional selling point - probably the best selling point for any product - namely sex. The implied promise of only the waterbed was that you would have this amazingly wild sex life. The scuttlebutt that was passed around (and promoted by the industry) was that having sex on a waterbed was so much more fantastically great than on a conventional bed, or even the floor. Merely owning a waterbed would make you a paramour or a Don Juan.
Of course, this wasn't the case. When you bought a waterbed, you are just a schmuck with a waterbed, and likely with a string of payments to pay for said waterbed. In other words it was just another product for you to buy to take a bite out of your bank account or rack up more credit card debt.
In every era of our country, there is always been a " must have" product that everybody seems to want to have. Only a decade or two later, the vaunted "must have" product seems to be obsolete, antiquated, or even silly. In the 1970's, for a young man with a good job and some disposable income, the desirable items to have were a water bed and a killer stereo system, preferably with a turntable, a cassette deck, receiver and huge-ass speakers.
Today, when you look at these products you are curious as to why anyone in their right mind would want to waste such enormous amounts of money on such silly things. For some reason or another, the desire for the big killer sound system disappeared around the 1980s. Perhaps it was the advent of the CD, which made almost any sound system of audiophile-quality, as we no longer had to listen to the scratch, pop, and static of record players, or turntables as we liked to call them. Or maybe it was the iPod or listening to music on our computers and other digital devices. Today it is the phone and bluetooth - and the surround-sound system-in-a-box.
Similarly, the waterbed, once a desirable object of consumer desire, seems almost juvenile or adolescent by the 1980's and 1990's. A waterbed was something you had in your twenties and outgrew when you became a real adult. Of course, we replaced the water bed in our lives with other types of mattresses with sleep adjustments or power inclination features or memory foam devised by NASA. Mattress companies for some reason, command high prices for sleep sets - all sold on time, of course!
In other words, we still chase after idiotic consumer goods, we just chased after a different set of idiotic consumer goods. Today, it is not the killer sound system with the humongous speakers, but rather the humongous flat screen television with the surround sound stereo. Same old shit, different day.
Of course, part of the problem of waterbeds was the actual living with a waterbed. Owning a waterbed presented a number of problems for a waterbed owner. To begin with, they were very heavy. Water weighs a little over eight pounds per gallon and when you throw hundreds of gallons of water into your bedroom you may have hundreds if not thousands of pounds of weight to your bedroom floor.
This additional weight could affect the structure of a building if it was not properly constructed to handle such a load. In addition, Waterbeds, being full of water, are always a risk for leaks and flooding. The waterbed "mattress" was nothing more than a plastic bag, which over time would degrade and possibly leak. The waterbed of course had a liner designed to catch such leaks. But if the liner developed a leak as well, then hundreds of gallons of water could pour onto the floor and into the apartment below. For this reason most landlords would not allow water beds in rental properties.
Waterbed also required heaters, which is something that most people don't realize. If you slept on a waterbed without a heater, the water would be at room temperature and you would feel very cold sleeping on it. That's why a water bed usually had a heater in the form of a pad or heating rod to maintain the water temperature at or near body temperature. This made the water bed warm in the winter, but did present an additional expense for the owner.
Waterbeds usually required special sheets as well, as the "mattress" was recessed into a wooden frame or box. Thus, owning a water bed was additional bit of a hassle when it came to fitting it with sheets and blankets.
And speaking of the frame, most waterbed frames were pretty ugly. Being designed in the 1970's, they were subject to the design excesses of the age. Glitz and glamour were the norm, as well as wood-tone design themes usually achieved with the aid of a router or other woodworking tools. Other bed frames played to the aura of sexuality by providing mirrored surfaces (preferably on the ceiling!) or champagne holders and the like. While such styling might work well for a twenty-something during the Disco era of the 1970's, by the 1980's and 1990's they became something of an embarrassment to their owners.
Usually by this time, they had started to wear out as well and thus many owners started to abandon their water beds. Their landlords didn't like them, they will viewed as ugly, they look immature and juvenile, and they were difficult to deal with. Throw in "wearing out" or "leak" and there was little reason to keep one.
And one other thing, they were uncomfortable as hell. Despite the claims of the industry, water beds were not significantly better for your health, for your back, or for your sleep patterns. While many people profess to love waterbeds and claim that gave them the best night's sleep, others found them difficult to lay in.
Sleeping in a water bed took some getting used to, and many people never got used to it or found it relaxing or comfortable. Worse yet the purported advantages for sexual relations failed to materialize for many people. In fact many people found it difficult if not impossible to have sex on an undulating water platform. Once you start rocking, the water would slosh back and forth, causing a standing wave in the bed that could eventually toss you out. The industry tried to fix this problem with internal baffles or the water tubes (like the one I had above) but the sloshing effect was still there.
Most of my friends got rid of their water beds by the mid-1980's or the 1990's at the latest. Some tried to sell them in the local PennySaver, others really took them out to the dumpster and threw them in. Since the frame came apart for easy moving, it wasn't difficult to dispose of a used waterbed. I believe mine ended up in a dumpster in a similar fashion.
The story of waterbeds, though is instructive, as indeed it is the story of consumerism. As I noted earlier, the huge sound system was a "must have" item for people in the 1970's. In the nineteen-sixties, it was a giant console color TV and maybe a Hi-Fi set. In the 1950's it was the black and white television, and in the 1940's, perhaps the console radio.
While some of these may have been desirable consumer goods at the time, and may have provided hours of entertainment, the reality is many of them did not even last the decade before they were obsolete. This is instructive before you go out and buy any consumer goods. Think about how long you actually will have the item in question before it turns into an obsolete brick that is no longer usable.
In more recent times we have some similar "must have" items that have come and gone in our lives. In the 1980's having a personal computer what seemed to be a big deal. And by the 1990's most people were on their second and third machine. About this time the laptop computer became popular both as a useful business tool and status symbol.
Today, we talk about a post-PC era, in which people are migrating toward smartphones and pad devices in place of the traditional desktop PC or even laptop computer. More and more people are turning off their traditional computers and finding themselves using them less and less. And of course more and more of them are making their way to dumpsters across America. What was once a highly desirable consumer good is now a worthless piece of junk.
And it goes without saying that today's smartphones and pad devices and other electronic toys will be let go in the same way. Today's "must have" smartphone is tomorrow's obsolete model - perhaps on a consumer cycle even shorter than in the past.
The point is - and I did have one - is that it is possible to spend an awful lot of money trying to keep up with these "must have" consumer purchases. Back in the 1970's you could spend an awful lot of money at the waterbed store - and the salesman would helpfully offer to help you finance it over time so long as you had a pay stub.
But the reality is, you could have just skipped the entire process, save yourself a lot of money, and not missed out on the magic of owning a waterbed. You could just skip right to that "toss it in the dumpster" stage and bypass a lot of grief and hassle. Of course this means you wouldn't have had the bragging rights of owning a waterbed in the 1970's - a dubious distinction at best.
Will waterbeds ever make a comeback? I doubt it, only because people seem to want to move on to the next greatest and latest thing. No doubt, someone will come up with some new type of mattress or sleep device, and it will be talked about in the news and advertised heavily. And no doubt your friends and neighbors will tell you that you "have to have one" as it is that is his given them the "best night sleep" they've ever had.
And no doubt, within a decade it too, will be in the dumpster and people have moved on to something else.
That's pretty much the story of waterbeds.