“Don’t let the bedbugs bite” wasn’t always a casual benediction. Mattresses stuffed with straw, hair, feathers, and similar materials have long served as nesting places for creatures ranging from dust mites to rats. In addition to harboring vermin, stuffings of these types gradually compressed under the weight of the sleeper. The mattress became hard and lumpy and failed to provide support where it was most needed.
These problems go back to the Middle Ages at least, but in the mid-1800s the key to a vastly improved mattress arrived in the form of a new ingredient: steel. As early as 1865 a British patent showed a mattress with a wire-mesh surface supported by an array of cylindrical springs, but it took decades for coil-spring mattresses to catch on. One reason was the high price; another was that the cylindrical springs tended to turn sideways or curve outward when compressed. In addition, the sharp end of a broken spring could poke through a mattress’s padding.
Instead, as the nineteenth century wore on, mattresses of woven wire, in which the sleeper’s weight was supported by a mesh or net, became popular. The inevitable sagging that occurred over time could be alleviated by turning a key that allowed a moving wooden cross-member to take up some of the slack. Other versions used a set of ropes that could be tightened. People using mattresses of this type were told to “sleep tight.”
In the 1870s Zalmon Simmons, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who owned a cheesebox factory and a country store, accepted a patent on a woven-wire mattress from a customer in lieu of cash. In 1876 he began using mass-production techniques, which by the end of the century would let him reduce the price of a standard woven-wire mattress from $12 to 95 cents, less than a day’s wages for most workers. Meanwhile, a Simmons engineer named John Marshall had patented a new type of woven-wire mattress that was reinforced with coil springs. Each one had to be made by hand, so for many years they were found mainly on luxury liners and at top-of-the-line hotels.
When President James Garfield was shot, in July of 1881, the latest technology was employed to ensure his comfort and well-being. (This did not extend to his medical care, which by most accounts was fatally inept.) His room was outfitted with an early type of air-conditioning system in which air was blown over ice. Alexander Graham Bell came to his bedside with an experimental metal detector he had invented. The inventor used it to search for the bullet lodged somewhere in Garfield’s back but failed to locate it, apparently because he was unaware that the new kind of mattress Garfield lay upon contained steel springs, which interfered with the device.
Well into the twentieth century most mattresses were of the “solid pad” type, filled with cotton felt, hair, or kapok, a light, water-resistant fiber harvested from the seedpods of a tropical tree. These often sat atop a second wire mattress, with the upper one providing softness and the lower one providing springiness. (The familiar box-spring-and-mattress combination is a descendant of this pairing.) “Inner construction” or “innerspring” mattresses were still strictly for highend customers.
The low end could get very low indeed. The January 1913 issue of Good Housekeeping gave readers some alarming information about their beds: “All of us, it is safe to say, have at one time or another slept on a pile of rags gathered from a city dump and never disinfected.” The magazine’s Upton Sinclair–meets–Martha Stewart exposé described how a number of mattress manufacturers, faced with spiraling cotton costs, resorted to stuffing from used mattresses and shoddy, a cheap woolen fiber often made from discarded rags.
A few states had already passed laws requiring manufacturers to affix labels to mattresses stating whether the materials were new or secondhand. (The dire penalty for removing the label applies to retailers, not consumers.) Within 15 years of the Good Housekeeping article, more than half the states had similar laws. Mattress retailers had largely cleaned up their acts, though as late as 1927 Good Housekeeping was warning its readers to take old mattresses to reputable dealers to have their fillings replaced.
Innerspring mattresses finally became widespread during the 1940s and 1950s, as manufacturing techniques and postwar prosperity brought them within reach of the burgeoning middle class. In the ensuing half-century the average mattress has not changed that much. Typically, an array of several hundred steel springs is surrounded on the top, bottom, and sides with various sorts of padding, with the whole assembly sewn inside a tough fabric envelope. In recent years polyurethane foam has largely replaced cotton or hair as the padding material.
The marketing of mattresses, on the other hand, has become vastly more complicated. Comparison shopping is almost impossible because manufacturers sell the same product lines to different retailers under different names. The suggested retail price of a mattress is set mainly to make the sale price look like an incredible bargain, and at most stores, mattresses are never not on sale. Factors such as the number of coils and the gauge of the spring wire provide some objective measure of quality, but these make little difference except in low-end models. Most mattress makers buy their springs from the same company, Leggett & Platt.
Mattresses filled with air or water offer some obvious advantages. They do not wear unevenly—or at all—and they provide uniform support along the curvature of the body. Waterbeds date back at least several thousand years, to ancient Persia, where some well-to-do slumberers reclined on goatskins filled with water. In sixteenth-century France an upholsterer named William Dujardin created a mattress of waxed canvas inflated with air. The “wind bed” was briefly popular in fashionable circles, but the technology of the day was not good enough to keep an air-filled bladder from leaking.
The middle-aged and elderly are the primary early adopters of the latest in sleep technology. Lindsay Wagner, once the indefatigable 1970s television heroine of “The Bionic Woman,” can now be seen talking about the malaise that afflicted her until she was revitalized by the advanced technology of the Select Comfort Sleep Number bed, which allows users to activate air pockets that adjust the firmness of the mattress at the touch of a button. It’s not as dramatic as the technology that gave Wagner’s character superhuman strength, but for someone who has trouble getting to sleep, a comfortable mattress is even more heroic.