Although many associate waterbeds with strait-laced suburban living, back in the ‘70s they were a symbol of the free-flowing counterculture movement—more likely to be sold with incense and Doors albums than with fluffy pillows and high thread count sheets. “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads” was how a New York Times story from 1986 described them. The names of manufacturers and distributors reflected this: Wet Dream, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds, and Aquarius Products were a few that rolled with the times.
Sex, of course, was a big selling point. “Two things are better on a waterbed,” an Aquarius ad stated. “One of them is sleep.” Another ad proclaimed, “She’ll admire you for your car, she’ll respect you for your position, and she’ll love you for your waterbed.” Hippies and hip bachelors alike were the target market for the bed that promised the motion of the ocean. Hall even got in on the act, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” setup, complete with contour pillows, color television, directional lighting, and a bar. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course—Hall made him one covered in green velvet, and Hef had another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair.
By the ’80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. “It has followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda,” the Times noted. Indeed, waterbeds were available in a variety of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box frames. Allergy sufferers liked having a dust-free mattress, while back pain sufferers were drawn to the beds’ free-floating quality. Advertisements by sellers like Big Sur Waterbeds played up the health benefits with shirtless, beefy dudes like this one…
While the particular history (and then demise) of the waterbed is interesting in itself, it hints at larger patterns. Is this is an isolated story of a product that goes from the counterculture to suburban homes or is this a common pattern among American consumer goods and cultural products? What was once radical or born out of a subgroup can become simply a run-of-the-mill item found in millions of homes. Cool often can only last so long. I am reminded of the argument that the retailer Gap lost its edge when it became another company looking for suburban consumers.
Of all the consumer goods I could think of that are associated with the suburbs, it would be a long time before I made it to waterbed. I might have to start such a list with cars (after ruling out single-family homes because they are too expensive to really quality for such a list).