In the beginning man slept on the cold hard ground. But it did not take long until he fashioned a mound of leaves, straw, and twigs to create a more comfortable sleeping surface. He soon placed an animal skin over the mound as a sheet and another as a cover. Later he formed mattresses by sewing skins or fabrics together and filling it with cushioning materials. To raise the mattress off the floor crude wooden frames were built, some cross-strung with rope to support the mattresses. This rope would eventually sag and need to be tightened. This is where the expression “sleep tight” comes from. This basic bed was called the pallet, and little changed for thousands and thousands of years.
In more advanced cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans ornate beds were used by the upper classes but the basic mattress was still filled with organic materials such as straw, animal hair, cotton, or feathers. From early civilizations through the middle ages ornate beds were a symbol of wealth and power. But the basic mattresses were still not very good.
With the industrial revolution came the steel coil spring. It was first patented for use in a chair seat in 1857. Heinrich Westphal was credited with inventing the innerspring mattress in 1871. Heinrich lived in Germany and never profited from his invention dying in poverty.
It would be more than 60 years before innerspring mattresses gained a measure of popularity. Innerspring mattresses and box springs were sold throughout this period and had their ups and downs in sales.
During this time manufactured mattresses were filled with cotton, hair, or feathers. Variations of cotton were the best sellers. Raw cotton was filled into a sewn mattress ticking and beaten out with a stick to make it flat. The ticking was then closed and hand or machine tufted to help hold it’s shape. Foundations were usually open coil boxsprings but sometimes flat metal springs.
In the early 1900’s the bedding industry got together and fought for sanitary bedding laws and eventually got them. It was not uncommon to have vermin-infested mattresses, even new off the production lines. Organic mattresses fillings of the time were subject to all sorts of attack by bugs, bacteria, and mildew. Do you remember the saying: “Don’t let the bed bugs bite?”
By 1927 Bedding shipments had reached a new record of $100 million. Boxsprings with ticking covers were still new selling at a rate of about one to every 15 mattresses. By 1929 bedding shipments topped $129 million. Business was great, but you know what happened in 1929. In 1935 sales hit bottom at $49.7 million. Bedding is sensitive to economic changes. People can easily delay replacing their bedding a few more years. Even today, on average, people only replace their bedding every 12.5 years.
Cotton mattresses were popular even into the 1950’s and 1960’s. Cotton would mildew easily in hot humid climates before the advent of air conditioning. Cotton mattresses differentiate themselves in price points by using combinations of raw cotton and cotton felt. Cotton felt is cotton that is run through a garnet machine which combs the cotton into a fine and fully layer. Medium price mattresses had a layer of cotton felt on the outside portions with raw cotton stuffed in the center. Higher priced mattresses were all cotton felt. Cotton mattresses tended to compact and become harder with age, and innerspring mattresses tend to become softer with age.
Innerspring mattresses started gaining some market share in the late 1920’s but it took until after World War II for them to really start catching on. In the late 40’s and through the 50’s there were a rash of patents issued on different innerspring mattress designs.
In the 1950”s marked the rapid development of licensee groups like Sealy, Simmons, Spring Air, King Coil and Restonic. King and Queen super-size bedding made it’s first serious impact on the market. In an effort to sell higher priced bedding manufacturers promoted more and heavier steel coils as firmer is better. The “firm is best” concept caught on and is still largely accepted today.
Foam was a byproduct of the wars. Latex came first, the result of a desperate need for a rubber substitute. After the war, the tire companies looked for new markets for their new synthetic, and the bedding industry became an important customer. Polyurethane foam became a challenger to Latex in the mid 1950’s. Latex foam was much more expensive than innersprings. Polyurethane was less expensive than latex., but a good quality foam was still more expensive than innersprings. Cheap foam was used much more in mattresses than quality foam and foam mattresses eventually got a bad rap. It was also difficult to achieve product differentiation with just a foam core mattresses, a salesperson had a lot more to talk about with an innerspring design. With manufacturers preoccupation with firmer is better, even the foam mattresses were too hard and offered little difference in feel from an innerspring design. For all of these reasons foam has never gained a large market share.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s quilted tickings became popular. Instead of simple flat surfaces of striped ticking, mattress covers are now multi-needle quilted in fashion ticking colors and designs. Today, this style dominates the market. The major bedding brands sell strictly on peoples emotion. They make the beds pretty and people think that if it is a major brand it must be good. In reality it is very old technology and much better alternatives exist.
Innerspring mattresses are really not complicated. You have a series of double cone coils in a spring unit. The coil count is the number that fit in a double or full size mattresses. The most popular today is 252 coils and 312 coils, there are other counts including the 368 and upwards. Then you have different gauges of steel used in the coils: 13.5ga., 13ga., 12.5ga., and 12ga. So of course the heavier gages and greater number of coils make the mattress firmer. There are 3 basic types of spring units that really are not so different from each other, the Bonel unit has a coil with circular shape on each end of the coil, the offset coil simply has two flat spots bent on each outside ring of the coil, and the continuous coil unit is simply formed from a continuous piece of wire. The last type is the pocketed coil, this is a straight rather than a double cone coil, and the coil is sewn into a little bag or pocket of fabric before being arranged inside the mattress. Foundations are not much different except that they are usually single cone coils with a lower coil count of 40 to 80 and formed of heavier gage wire, and stapled to a wooden base. Padding of some form is put over the coils. An insulator pad is put directly on top of the coils to keep the springs from pushing through the padding material. The insulator is usually a needle punched pad formed from reprocessed rags and is from 1/8″ to ¼” thick. Then a padding material is applied over the insulator before the ticking cover is put on. In the old days cotton,, hair, and other organic materials were all that were available. Today polyurethane foam is widely used as the main padding as well as cotton. Bedding manufacturers vary their product designs by choosing different combinations of padding materials as well as different spring configurations.
That is about all there is to it. Innerspring mattresses have not changed much since they were invented 125 years ago. They are all simply steel springs with pads. Even since the early 1900’s you had a cotton pad or mattress over a coil spring unit. Today you have cotton or foam pads over both sides of the innerspring unit and covered with a pretty ticking. Today’s foundations are little different from the original open coils except they now have an insulator pad, usually a layer of cotton padding, and a pretty ticking cover.
You can see that the bedding business has not changed much since they were invented 125 years ago. Consumer attitudes and preferences are very slow to change when it comes to a product as basic as bedding.
Spring beds were an improvement over the basic bed that had been used for thousands of years before. They had more softness and conformity. But coil springs still have a basic problem, they can only cushion a downward force. They cannot push up. They cannot conform to and properly support your body.
In the early 1970’s waterbeds made their debut into the market. Unlike spring beds water displaces to conform to the exact shape of your body and actually pushes up to support recessed areas of your body such as the small of your back. The result is even all over support, an even distribution of pressure, much greater comfort, less backaches, a better night’s sleep, and feeling better the next day. Waterbeds were the only real innovation in bedding in over 100 years.
The water-less waterbed. I have experimented with innersprings and actually built a lot of different models in trying to develop a comfortable innerspring mattress that comes close to the comfort of a waterbed. All the experiments failed. Then one day the concept hit me. Not a coil spring, but a lever-spring. We built a prototype mattress and it worked. The lever-springs are flat metal springs, each about 12″ long. They are arranged flat in the center of the mattress sandwiched between two pieces of foam. When a heavier part of your body such as your hips depresses one end of the lever the other end will actually push up to support a recessed area such as the small of your back. That’s it. It actually can push up to give you support just like a waterbed. Of course I applied for a patent and it issued shortly after. It is a very strong patent that covers virtually any conceivable combination of levers in a mattress. To borrow a cliché, “give me a lever and I will move the world.” This has become a very strong salable product. Already a national bedding brand name has taken a license under the patent, for a special market segment, with good minimum annual royalties. For now we plan to pursue the consumer market ourselves.
I thought this was a pretty interest read, I hope you did as well.