Lesson 5 – Learn Mattress History 101

What kind of mattress did you grow up sleeping on?

Was the mattress your parents selected for you a conscious choice, or the result of following a market trend? How about your current mattress — conscious choice or trend-driven? How would you even know?

Let’s take a quick jaunt through mattress history to find out what types of mattress materials were popular when — and why.

Back in the day (we’re talking up until about the 1930s), mattresses were made of fiber only. Usually the fiber used was whatever was available locally — straw, feathers, cotton, wool. Mattresses were simple and inherently 2-sided; you had to flip and rotate them to even out the shifting of the fill, so as to avoid lumps.

After the rise of industrialism, steel coils were introduced into mattresses.

The idea that a mattress should ‘bounce’ or ‘give’ grew in popularity. Individual coils were linked together into a ‘coil unit’ or a ‘coil system’ that served as the core of the mattress, the very center.

Coil systems were wrapped in fibers — usually cotton or wool — to provide cushioning and softness. Still, mattresses were typically very flat and hard, and yes, two-sided and flippable. The coil systems themselves rarely developed problems (this is still the case today). It was the comfort layer around the coils that received the wear and tear (again, this is still the case today).

From functional to fluffy

Once private equity invaded the mattress industry, it became harder than ever to find a mattress you could flip. One-sided mattresses became all the rage, and manufacturers tried to make them look as tempting as possible by adding more plushness.

Cue: the age of the towering mattress. Suddenly manufacturers were layering mattresses up to 20″ tall with elaborate comfort layers. Manufacturers used padding on top of padding, this “special” material on top of that “special material,” all in an effort to provide a luxurious-seeming sleeping experience. Walk through most any mainstream mattress store these days and you’ll see plenty of these super thick mattresses.

But thicker mattresses weren’t enough. Manufacturers began relying on chemicals to ‘enhance’ their comfort layers, getting bolder in their claims about what these ‘special materials’ could do. We saw the rise of poly(urethane) foams, memory foams, soy foams, and gel foams. [LINK to Lesson or Supplement X]

One-sided mattresses now dominate the mainstream market, as many manufacturers have phased out flippables for the consumer market, all the while quietly continuing to sell them to the hospitality industry only.  Because hoteliers won’t stand for anything but good value — and neither should you.

The thicker the mattress, the less durable it may be

There are three serious problems with these ultra padded, one-sided mattresses: (1) a ‘can’t flip’ mattress wears out fast, since you have to sleep in the same spot every night and the body impressions have nowhere else to go, (2) a mattress’s comfort layers receive most of the wear and tear from normal usage, and the more comfort layers there are, the worse the wear and tear, and (3) these chemical-laden materials — despite their attractive marketing — aren’t good for the body or the earth.

Avoid very thick mattresses at all costs

Because there’s so much money in selling one-sided mattresses, it’s unlikely we’ll see a mainstream resurgence of flippable mattresses any time soon. But the two-sided concept is tried and true. No matter what chemists can mix in a laboratory to pour into your mattress, you can’t defy basic laws of gravity and physics. If you avoid buying very thick mattresses, you avoid the certain premature failure of the extreme comfort layers, and you save money by not having to replace your mattress so quickly.

Now that you’ve had an overview of mattress history, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the different types of mattress materials available in the market today. Because what you sleep on matters.

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