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We Live in a Mattress Apocalypse

The pain of buying a non-foam mattress for less than $1,000 online is even worse than sleeping on one

There are too many fucking mattresses in the world. In fact, there are at least 175 different online mattress companies, most of whose products are made with some kind of repulsive foam or latex material that spits in the face of God. We’re told that all of these choices are a good thing, a mark of the “innovation” that capitalism “breeds.” We’re supposed to be thankful, as we cut open the binding layers of packaging, watching the cushy block heave monstrously in relief of the confines of the box, that we’ve been given the opportunity to spend several hundred dollars — at minimum — on an uncomfortable, unsexy brick that we’ll probably throw out within three years. Unless, of course, we just leave it behind the next time we move apartments because, as it turns out, it’s cheaper to buy entirely new shit than pay to have it properly transported. Then we’ll be presented with the banal horror of having to go through the mattress-buying process all over again. 

Just three months ago, I begrudgingly dropped $600 on a mediocre innerspring mattress. It was fine. But more significantly, it was pretty much the only non-memory foam mattress I could get shipped to my apartment without needing to spend well over a grand (though within a month, I felt as though it was beginning to cave in the middle). I would have slept on it for longer — never happy about it — had the roof of my bedroom not collapsed during a spell of record rainfall from Hurricane Ida, dousing my new mattress in rusty water. So now, I’m back at square one of the baffling ordeal of choosing a mattress. 

I get that this is very much a “first-world problem,” for lack of a better term. Shit, even fewer than 4 in 10 of Americans can afford a $1,000 emergency expense, meaning many people would struggle to afford a new mattress if they were put in a situation like mine (or if they didn’t have renters’ insurance). I say this to make a very important point: The mattress-buying process ultimately points to the economic precarity millions of Americans experience. 

Before I was of an age where I was buying mattresses for myself, there was a time when one could go to a mattress store, spend a not-insignificant amount of money on a bed that fit their needs and sleep on it for the next decade, periodically flipping the thing over to extend its lifespan. It was an investment, but one that paid off. Obviously, brick-and-mortar mattress stores still exist, but the percentage of mattress sales that take place online increases dramatically with each passing year, and with it, so do the sales of foam mattresses over innersprings

Last year, writer Yves Smith shared a blog post on the “crapification” of mattresses, referring broadly to the general decline in quality of many consumer goods. “To shorten what could be a very long story, Josh Kosman, in his classic The Buyout of America, has an entire chapter devoted to the crapification of mattresses,” he wrote. “Private equity roll-ups turned the industry into a duopoly. The incumbents got rid of the flippable mattress, selling consumers on the falsehood that non-flippable mattresses, which don’t last as long, were nevertheless somehow better.

“Foam mattresses, which I regard as an abomination, have also been widely touted as a viable alternative to the solid, reliable spring mattress. To do so, they have had to sell a bug as a feature: the fact that they quickly develop depressions where you sleep as the mattress ‘molding’ to your body.”

Foam mattresses might be a good choice for some, and are often touted as a solution for people with various pain issues. As a kid, my parents invested in an expensive Tempur-Pedic mattress for my father to help alleviate some of the pain from neck and spine issues that required multiple surgeries. But considering that my dad still ended up addicted to heroin sometime soon after that, I don’t really think it worked. 

Am I blaming memory foam for my bad childhood? Maybe. But it’s bad for other reasons, too, namely that it’s simply not that comfortable, causes you to overheat, makes sex laborious and, as Smith mentioned, simply doesn’t hold up as long as classic innerspring varieties. Still, foam mattresses are cheaper to manufacture, far easier to shove into a box and ship and perpetuate the Sisyphean cycle of regularly needing to buy new shit, which is seemingly why they dominate the market. This whole system of creating new goods, particularly out of weird, human-made foams, is also burdensome on the planet: The less durable the mattress, the more often we have to throw it out, buy a new one and continue the routine of production and consumption.

The deluge of shitty foam mattresses is just another example of the ways the free market works only toward the quest for profit and forces us to grovel for its crude wares, regardless of actual quality. I can only hope my next mattress purchase at least gives me a few dozen months of not having to think about it again.

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