One of Those 70s Things: Waterbeds

Wednesday, August 22, 2012
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Waterbeds. Was there ever another piece of furniture in the history of mankind that enjoyed a kinkier reputation? I've only known one person in my life who actually had a waterbed, and that was a girl that I was friends with in junior high. I can still remember feeling the rippling sensation and hearing the squish of the water as it lapped under my body (editor's note: I'm heterosexual and despite the sensual description, nothing unsuitable for a G rated audience took place on that bed; I was merely trying it out.)

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That was the one and only time I encountered one, and this was some time during the 80s, definitely the end of the waterbed's heyday. While they're thought of as a 70s fad, waterbeds actually have their roots in the 1800s, when they were used for medicinal purposes and to prevent bedsores. Dr. Neil Arnott, a Scottish physician, is most often credited with inventing an early form of the waterbed, but never patented it. In 1968, helped along by the invention of vinyl, Charles Prior Hall brought the waterbed into the modern age. He first experimented with a chair by filling it with cornstarch and even Jello (!) He had better luck with a bed, and dubbed it "the pleasure pit." He patented his creation in 1971, but manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon with their own designs.

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Soon, the waterbed took off along with its slutty reputation. Hugh Hefner owned a king sized one covered with Tasmanian possum fur. "Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep." said an advertising slogan from one company who made them. In 1971, Time reported on the bed's newfound popularity: "In Manhattan, the waterbed display at Bloomingdale's department store for a while was a popular singles meeting place. Sears, Roebuck and Holiday Inns are eying the beds, and Lake Tahoe's Kings Castle Hotel has already installed them in its luxury suites."

The waterbed's popularity peeked in 1987 when it accounted for 22% of all U.S. mattress sales that year. Eventually, their novelty wore out as the cons of owning one (danger of being punctured, high cost of heating the water, heavy to move, etc.) outweighed its pleasures. They still make them today, but I've yet to meet another person who claims to own one. 

Despite the fact that they were so rare in my circle of acquaintances, television commercials for waterbeds are plentiful on the web. It seems by the time the 80s came around (which coincidentally was when safe sex started to be touted) that they were promoted as cool beds for kids.

OK, so this one is from the 70s...what is up with the clip of the pooping baby lion at the end?

This one featuring an older couple is just plain terrible and kind of discriminating...they're so old they're driving an antique car? Someone must have tipped the wife off about waterbeds lighting up a senior sex life, as she seems awfully eager to bring one home. 

Did you ever own a waterbed, or try one out?


  1. I had a boyfriend with a waterbed in the mid-80s. It was terrible for sex. You get bounced all around, always rolling away from each other.

    1. You had the wrong mattress:)

    2. You had the wrong boyfriend...

  2. Omigod, if this doesn't scream 'Go Retro' I don't know what does :)

    Loved the commercials Pam--these need to make a comeback (even if they are only good for sleeping)

  3. We got a waterbed because it helps keep you cool (temperature-wise!) in a hot climate. We figured we could put the a/c up a few degrees at night while resting on the cooler mattress. Used one for 30-some years!

    Finally leaks (and a bedbug infestation that necessitated a new bed) convinced us to go conventional. When you have to take the bed apart to get rid of the bugs, it's a lot easier if you don't have to drain the mattress.

  4. I can't imagine them being good for your back or for any adult activities.
    My only experience with them is vicariously via my sister, who slept on one at a friends house as a child and got sea sick!

  5. I love our waterbed. My husband and I have had one since I was pregnant with our 2nd child, 25 years ago, and was so uncomfortable I wouldn't sleep an other night in a conventional bed. We've only needed to replace the mattress twice in 25 years (and they were both slow leaks that the hard side plastic "pool liner" caught. No water ever got on the floor or anything.

    They are great for sleep and... other things. We have a waveless with baffles, (not much movement, but supportive and soft) we've considered gong conventional when this mattress goes, as we can't find waterbed mattresses anywhere near out house. But, I found many online.

    The worst part if finding sheets. Waterbed sheets are impossible to find, and are usually crappy 200 ct crappy quality. I simply buy regular King Sheets for our Queen waterbed (it's closer to a King Size bed than a Queen anyway) and we go with that. That and the dark wood, mirror and shelf headboard that screams "They bought this in the 1980s!"

    Maybe one day we'll go back to regular bed, but I doubt it.

  6. I have had a few water beds thru the 70's and 80's.
    They were so cool, and I had several dozen women in them and the sex was all wonderful. By the time I had met my wife she wasn't into water beds, the movement made her ill so I got a regular bed. sex was never the same after that but we made it 25 years anyway.
    I never had a leak from a puncture but did experience some small leaks in the seams but was good at repairing them.
    I did have one horrific experience when I broke up with a girl I had been seeing because she always got into an argument with me and threatened to break up if I went out of town on yet another business trip. I was just out of college and had a job with a national company and frequently I had to travel.
    When I changed the locks I figured she'd get the message that I was done arguing. But she wasn't done delivering her message as she broke in my apartment , slashed my water bed, cut all my suits off at the knees and elbows and put it all in the water, as a topping she threw in my sterio equipment which I prized highly and my 35 mm camera system. the water made it way down the hallway of my first floor apartment building and into about 5 others apartments. It was a hell of a mess to clean up, insurance paid the damages and I moved away from that woman, who ironically found me 22 years later on face book and with whom I am casual friends with today, although we do live several thousand miles apart, even though the waterbeds gone, no telling she may not be over the break up yet.

    1. @ Anonymous: Quite a story. Were you in the habit of dating psychopaths?

  7. Can't believe you didn't mention Robert Heinlein. From Wikipedia:

    Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein described therapeutic waterbeds in his novels Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). In 1980 Heinlein recalled in Expanded Universe that:
    "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 made no attempt to build his invention.

  8. A little late posting here but I want to get rid of my early 80s queen. It's filled and in use so any local buyer can come see it's good. My back needs a firmer foam mattress nowadays. I'm in middle Tennessee if anyone wants a real 80s waterbed. Original mattress never leaked. Maintained well with conditioner. Pine with drawers underneath and headboard with shelves and mirror, side rail pads and replaced heat pad. I guess clicking my name will bring up the ability to contact me through gmail. Hit me up if interested, make offer.

  9. Waterbeds may are not popular at the USA, but at Germany, Austria and Swiss a lot of people love them because of their healthy benefits by back pain and sleepnessless. We are manufacturer of waterbeds and have developed a waterbed for the sleep room including real hydro massage.

  10. I've slept on an old school waterbed since 1976. I have the same frame, but I've gone through about 3 or 4 mattresses and heaters. I hate sleeping on dead beds whenever I'm in a hotel or whatever.

  11. You had the wrong boyfriend...


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