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Waterbeds Are Back, But Will They Make You Better at Fucking?

“One of the guys at the nudist colony said he preferred sex on the floor,” says Charles Hall, inventor of the waterbed

“Two things are better on a waterbed (one of them is sleeping).”

So read this 1971 ad in The Stanford Daily. By then, a mere three years since the modern waterbed was invented, it was a well-known curiosity and already synonymous with sex — the April 1970 issue of Playboy featured one in the centerfold and Hugh Hefner had two in the Playboy Mansion (one of which, by all accounts, was covered in green velvet, the other in tasmanian possum fur).

“It was the right time and the right place,” shares Charles Hall, the inventor of the modern waterbed, who debuted it in a gallery show in San Francisco 1968. Immediately, it was a big deal. “I don’t know if August is slow for news, but it appeared in papers across the country,” Hall remembers. “It was a very counterculture time, and San Francisco was a very counterculture place. So things that were out of the mainstream were embraced.” Unsurprisingly, the waterbed fit right in at a time when the “Summer of Love” had occurred just the year before.

While Hall was genuinely trying to market a product that was more comfortable than a regular bed, it became clear to him that the connotation with sex was immediate. “Everybody got the idea that this might be good for more than just a sound night’s sleep, or more than likely, they didn’t even think about sleep at all,” he says.

Rather than try to fight it, Hall embraced the connection, renaming the original model “The Pleasure Pit.” It worked, not only making national news but also attracting the interest of what Hall remembers as “interesting people.” “Of those first 30 waterbeds that my partner and I made, we sold one to Jefferson Airplane, one to one of the Smothers Brothers, two to a nudist colony and Playboy even bought one for an issue about beds,” he says.

The waterbed soon made its presence known throughout every realm of American media. Porn films like 1971’s The Session and The Big Snatch featured them. John Lennon owned one. James Bond boned on one (in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, when Sean Connery got intimate with Jill St. John on a waterbed filled with fish). Then there’s also 1977’s The Van, a teen sex comedy that’s basically just about a guy who puts a waterbed in his van to pick up women.

Despite all this, though, was it ever actually any good for sex? The answer seems to depend entirely on your taste. According to Hall, due to its comfort, “Waterbeds became good for all different kinds of positions because it eliminated pressure points.” Discretion, too, was a bonus. “It was silent, so there was no squeaking that you had to worry about,” shares Matthew Mazauskas, the owner of New Jersey’s Bedroom Galleries. Mazauskas also points out that, with those classic-style wooden-framed waterbeds, “A guy could put his toes in between the frame and the bed, which would give you a little bit of leverage,” as well as the fact that, right after sex, “You could kick back and enjoy a floating sensation, like smoking a cigarette.”

But while the “motion of the ocean” offered by a waterbed was its biggest asset, it was also, sometimes, its biggest drawback. According to psychologist and sex and intimacy coach Lori Beth Bisbey, “There’s a lot of bounce that can add to the rhythm, which is one of the best reasons to fuck on a waterbed. [But] some people hate the constant movement.” Certainly, some people outright despised it: “One of the guys at the nudist colony said he preferred sex on the floor,” recalls Hall.

Whether a waterbed is for you seems to depend on the energy and effort level you put into the act. “If you’re coordinated, you can be more energetic, but lazy sex is easier in a waterbed,” says Bisbey. Indeed, Hall vividly remembers one remark he heard in the early days that perfectly describes waterbed sex: “One older guy was in the gallery, examining the waterbed and he leaned over to me and said, ‘I get it, you pump a few times and then you coast the rest of the way.”

Not surprisingly then, although men would buy it, excited for new sexual possibilities, ultimately, the women they coaxed into bed were disappointed by the experience. This may explain why their sex appeal soon began to fade, the focus shifting instead on their viability as a traditional bed replacement. In 1978, the New York Times ran a story about how waterbeds were becoming “downright respectable” due to the superior comfort compared to the firm spring mattresses of the day. Perhaps because of the less creepy associations, sales of the waterbed only increased in the 1980s: A 1986 New York Times story wrote that the waterbed “followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda” by becoming mainstream.

“I was at a bedding show in the early 1980s, and a guy from Sealy or Simmons came up to me and said that waterbeds changed bedding in America,” Hall recalls. “Suddenly, people weren’t talking about coil count, and that firmer is better — they wanted a bed that was compliant and comfortable.” Bisbey agrees, saying that while she didn’t find a waterbed any better for sex, “It’s amazing for sleep.” The temperature adjustment, too — which is standard on waterbeds — had no real sexual advantage, but “the heat can soften and loosen muscles, moving you toward sleep,” says Bisbey.

At its height in the mid-1980s, one in every five mattresses sold in the U.S. was a waterbed. So what happened? People simply had more options to choose from. As a result of the waterbed’s impact on the bedding industry, mattress companies began developing more comfortable beds. Mazauskas recalls, “By 1995, the sales started to seriously diminish. Memory foam started to come out.” There were also other options, like pillow tops and beds with air chambers like the Sleep Number. “When I opened my store in 1990, there were maybe six or seven waterbed stores in the state of New Jersey,” says Mazauskas. “Now, I’m literally the last one.”

He adds that the only people who buy a waterbed today are those who have always slept on one and are just looking to replace it. In 2010, it was estimated that the waterbed still represented a little under five percent of the industry, but Mazauskas — again, the sole retailer in a densely populated state — claims that it’s probably only about one percent. “It’s fucking nominal,” he says.

There has been some renewed interest in the product lately though, as Hall himself is gearing for a comeback with his new bed called the Afloat. And this time, there’s no mention of sex: The push is all around the comfort level, which Hall still feels is superior to anything else on the market.

As to whether we’ll see the waterbed make another splash in the bedding industry, 50 years after its debut?

It’s impossible to say, but if it does, it won’t be because they’re any better for fucking.

Unless you’re lazy. Then it’s probably perfect for you.