John Birmingham

How Waterbeds Sprung a Leak

As families rise and fall in America, so does her industry. Today we salute the once thriving, but now sadly arid waterbed scene.


It is no coincidence that the decline of Playboy magazine, the Playboy Mansion, and the associated hydra-headed conglomerate of Playboy-related limited liability companies tracks almost exactly the collapse of the waterbed market. Once a multi-billion dollar colossus, waterbeds are now a soggy, deflated bladder, leaking regret and shame over the moldy shag carpet of our defeated culture.

Once upon a time, the late 1980s in fact, waterbeds were the Pokémon Go of bedtime technology. Now, waterbeds are the Pokémon Go of bedtime technology. The insanity has passed and millions who once proudly insisted on the wettest bed possible are like, “Wait! What? No, that wasn’t me.”

What happened, waterbed people? How did it all go so horribly wrong?

Well, Playboy didn’t help; which is to say, Hugh Hefner didn’t help. The modern, temperature-controlled waterbed was invented by Charles Hall, a Californian grad student in 1968. Hall built one for his Master’s Thesis in Design. He was and remains seriously committed to the potential of the waterbed as an elegant reimagining of a banal but universal domestic furnishing.

By 1970, Maximum Playboy Hugh Hefner boasted of two aircraft-carrier-sized waterbeds at the Playboy Mansion, one covered in livid green velvet and the other in luxurious possum fur imported from far Tasmania. It meant doom for Hall’s utilitarian vision of the waterbed. With Hef and his bunnies enthusiastically surfing this new wave, what self-respecting 1970s orgy guy or miniskirted sex mama would not want to get down on that all-you-can-eat booty buffet?

The time had already passed. They were heavy, leaked everywhere, and were actually really, really bad for sex. From a glorious peak the waterbed passed into history. My mother-in-law still has one … and two cats and a puncture repair kit.

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time.

Dr. John Kellogg famously developed his celebrated Corn Flakes as a sex antidote to discourage the early morning masturbatory impulse through the power of the Corn Flakes’ crispy crushing dullness. Then his greedy brother William added a metric shit-ton of irresistible sugar to every packet and millions of American perverts were soon mouth-hoovering the sweet-n-sexy porn flakes out of each others’ Brazilian crevices and pubic forests.

That’s exactly what happened to waterbeds too.

For 20 years waterbeds were the Bunk Town Express. In 1986, The New York Times even considered them a significant enough item of design—like an Eames Chair or the original iPod—to be worthy of historically interrogating the form. They seemed to capture the spirit of the age, wrote the Times, “filled with up to 250 gallons of water and who knows how many tons of sexual promise.”

Donkaliciousness duly authenticated by America’s paper of record, the waterbed died screaming in the windowless dungeon of the Times’ legendary cluelessness shortly thereafter.

The time of the waterbed people had already passed. They were heavy, they leaked everywhere, and they were actually really, really bad for sex. The beds weren’t much good either, other than as visual punchlines for lazy sitcom writers who were forever introducing them to cats with extra sharp claws. From a glorious peak, where every fourth or fifth bed in the free world was a hypnotically undulating latex orgy bladder, the waterbed passed into history.

My mother-in-law still has one … and two cats and a puncture repair kit.

The action at bedtime has moved on, but not too far. The hippest development in the land of nod right now? Sand bed mattresses, which are not a million miles removed from Charles Hall’s grad project. Conceptually, they’re just up the beach from it. And, just like the waterbed, what chance the sand mattress will be sold as a therapeutic aid for the treatment of pressure sores and tricky backs when it could be more profitably advertised as an enormously heavy and inconvenient sexual platform on which to relive teenage dreams of getting some at the beach?


This article originally appeared at Alien Side Boob and is reprinted with permission. Click here to subscribe




John Birmingham

John Birmingham has published lots of books. So many that he sort of loses track of them. He wrote features for magazines in a decade before publishing He Died With A Falafel In His Hand, working for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and the Long Bay Prison News amongst others. He won the National Award For Non-Fiction with Leviathan: An Unauthorised Biography of Sydney. He started writing airport novels because they were more fun. His most recent series of books that improve with altitude are the Dave Hooper novels. He blogs at the and can be found on Twitter as @JohnBirmingham

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