Sex, drugs and rolling into the corner: the waterbed turns 50

Sex, drugs and rolling into the corner: the waterbed turns 50

‘My theory is there’s a whole generation that was spawned on a waterbed.’

The waterbed industry has had its ups and downs over the decades. Mostly downs if you’re looking at the past 30 years.

But its most ardent supporters are buoyed by a modern wave of beds they say could shake its kitschy reputation once and for all, and maybe even bring it back into the mainstream.

Yes, the waterbed — that once-groovy emblem of the subversive ’60s and sexy ’70s — is not only still around, but gearing up for a comeback to mark its 50th anniversary in 2018.

“My theory is there’s a whole generation that was spawned on a waterbed,” says the bed’s inventor, Charlie Hall.

“They’re going to swim upstream like salmon and buy another one.”

The 74-year-old says he’s designed a new product for a generation that never got to experience the free-form beds the first-time around, back when his radical take on a mattress became a powerful symbol for a macrame-loving counter-culture.

A modern-day penchant for mattresses that contour and conform fits in well with the inherent properties of water, he says.

“It’s hard to believe it’s 50 years but … the whole interest (now is) conforming and comfort and pillow-tops and then memory foam and all that,” says Hall, reached recently by phone on a cruise ship near Santa Cruz, Mex., as he made his way to Panama.

“If you read the ads, they read like waterbed ads.”

Hall, who lives on Bainbridge Island, Wash., says his new bed will debut in February. It will be “very waveless,” and the same size as a traditional mattress.

“It looks like a conventional bed (but) it has a more compliant top on it so when you lay down on it you get more of the waterbed feel, which was always distinctively different than a regular mattress,” Hall says of his first new waterbed in more than 30 years.

“And it controls temperature — you can have it warmer or cooler, set it the way you want, even right and left side if you have different preferences.”

Missing from his pitch is mention of any sensuous attributes — the key marketing tactic that both vaulted, and possibly killed, the original waterbed.

Hall debuted his creation in 1968 at San Francisco State University where he was an industrial design student. Dubbed the “pleasure pit,” it generated instant media attention for its promise of sexual exploits.

“It was such a curiosity, and people had never seen anything like that that moved and was compliant like that,” says Hall.

The following year, he began a two-man production in Sausalito, Calif., crafting redwood frames by hand. Innerspace Environments would eventually grow to 32 retail stores in California.

But in San Francisco, they were originally sold in head shops, says Hall.

“They would sell a bong and a waterbed. I didn’t intend it that way, but that’s what happened,” he shrugs, suspecting that too limited the market despite famous devotees including Hugh Hefner, a Smothers Brother, and a member of Jefferson Airplane.

Indeed, the bed was tailor-made for the anti-establishment of the era.

The slogan of the industry was: “We are the sleep revolution,” recalls Andre Kocsis, whose Toronto company Halcyon Waterbeds launched in 1971.

“The enemy were the people who made spring beds,” says the 70-year-old. “We called them ‘dead beds.’ The worst thing in the world was a dead bed.”

Kocsis admits that much of the waterbed industry was amateurish, citing wanton trade shows in the early ’70s featuring cocaine and prostitutes.

“It was a bunch of hippies that had no business experience, that got into a product which just grew explosively. I mean, at its peak the waterbed industry was a $2-billion industry,” says Kocsis, citing an oft-touted tally from the U.S. waterbed industry at the time.

“The waterbed industry was run on hype…. It was kind of like drinking the Kool-Aid. We were trying to get a product accepted that had a fair amount of resistance for a fair number of reasons.”

Fears over leaks, the heavy load, ongoing maintenance and seasickness kept many from trying waterbeds out. But those who took the plunge were quick converts, says Kocsis, and generated strong word-of-mouth business.

By 1980, Kocsis says he had a staff of 300 and was doubling and tripling yearly sales: “We had a stallion that was running at full speed and all I could do was hang on.”

The eventual decline would be swift, too, he says.

Appeal tapered in the late ’80s and early ’90s, just as society shifted to a new conservatism and focus on family values. The industry tried to adapt with soft-sided and waveless versions that mimicked the conventional spring mattresses, but it was hard to shake a reputation ingrained through taglines like those on one early ad: “Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleeping.”

“Those things all came back to haunt the industry,” says Kocsis.

Interest has admittedly plummeted since then but demand persists, insists Mike Cleaver, owner of Waterbed Gallery in Barrie, Ont. He believes the time is ripe for a comeback.

“It’s been a long time, but the core values of sleeping on water are starting to come back to people,” says Cleaver, who entered the business in 1980.

“We hear on a daily basis what’s brought them back is their dissatisfaction with conventional mattresses…. Mattresses went through the roof on pricing and very little reasoning to back it up.”

He, too, blames much of the waterbed’s decline on the industry itself: “The industry self-imploded.” He recalls waterbed-mania breeding an increasing number of rivals, each trying to undercut the other.

“We had some competitors advertising a $99 waterbed. That’s when it got out of hand,” says Cleaver, suspecting cut corners further eroded reputation.

Lots of misconceptions arose, too, says Cleaver, disputing a slew of horror stories that dogged the product from Day 1.

“Waterbeds didn’t go through floors, heaters weren’t bad for pregnant women … and that magnetic field that was sent out was less than a clock radio,” he says of claims that the heaters’ electromagnetic fields caused health problems.

New products are out there now and Cleaver says these modern incarnations address many long-standing complaints — that waterbeds were too heavy, too big, or too cumbersome to move.

Still, Edward Leon, president of the furniture chain Leon’s, doesn’t see a market, calling the waterbed “very niche.”

“I don’t see that coming back in a big way under any circumstances,” says Leon, who guesses waterbeds represented about 15 per cent of overall bedding sales in Canada at its peak.

“There’s always niche players in everything so if you’re the only person selling them in Toronto you might have some success with it.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

From left: Thomas Kuecks, David Lane, John Ivison, Denis Berger, Rod Gray, and James Kuecks are Cabin Fever. Catch their performance on the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre website. (Ashley Foot photo)
A&E column: Music Festival winners, CVAC awards, and Cabin Fever

The latest from the Cowichan Valley arts and entertainment community

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
Cowichan Valley MLA Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

BC Green Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

The city-owned lot at 361 St. Julien St., which has been home to a temporary homeless site for more than a year, will be sold and plans are to build a three-storey mixed-use development there, Peter de Verteuil, Duncan CAO explained at a recent council meeting. (File photo)
New development planned for homeless site in Duncan

Lot on St. Julien Street would see three-storey building

Historian and longtime Citizen columnist T.W. Paterson photographs the historical wreckage of a plane on Mount Benson. Paterson recently won an award from the British Columbia Historical Foundation. (Submitted)
Cowichan’s Tom W. Paterson wins award for historical writing

British Columbia Historical Federation hands Recognition Award to local writer

This electric school bus is the newest addition to the Cowichan Valley School District’s fleet. (Submitted)
Editorial: New electric school bus good place to start

Changing public transit like buses to electric really is important.

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

Most Read