The earliest mattresses for humans that archeologists have found consist of dug trenches in the earth piled with leaves and other plant matter. Fast forward to today, and you can find a wide range of options from traditional feather beds to hybrid mattresses. Here, we’ll take a deep dive under the covers into the history of mattresses.
Mattress history is as old as civilization and probably older. We know that ten thousand years ago and possibly well before that, mattresses were invented. Piles of straw, wool and other soft material were stuffed into sacks and laid on a bed frame of sorts. We know the Romans used reeds, hay, wool or feathers based on what they could afford. We know Egyptians used palm boughs. They also invented the raised bed, though a layer of solid wood wasn’t really comfortable, just protection from snakes and spiders.
For the middle class, a wood frame with slats was used to raise the sleeper off the ground, keeping pests and drafts from reaching them. Another option was using tight ropes to hold the sleeper and mattress above the ground; this was the origin of the phrase “good night, sleep tight”.
The Persians were credited with inventing the first waterbeds; they used goatskins filled with water as mattresses. These were almost exclusively used by the wealthy. For the middle class, leather bands were often used. The poorest literally slept on the floor in a pile of hay.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, your sleeping arrangements depended on your family’s wealth. If you were wealthy, you had a wooden bed frame with slats underneath that would sell today as an antique still suitable for any home. Their beds often had canopies to capture insects that might fall from the ceiling. The bed posters also held up the curtains that hung up around the bed and could be dropped down for privacy. This was due in part to the fact that separate bedrooms were still rare, and it was common for children and servants to sleep around the main bed.
For the poor, a hay stuffed bag called a tick or basic wooden platform to keep them off the floor was all they had. This is the origin of the term “hitting the hay” that means to go to bed. They hit the hay to try to drive away bugs before they laid down on it.
By the 1700s, many people used mattresses consisting of mass produced linen and cotton covers stuffed with cotton, wool and any other available material. For the poor, straw and pea shucks were used. Many of the mattresses were buttoned to close them. Metal frames started to replace wooden frames, but wool ropes or leather straps still suspended the mattress of the poor.
The Industrial Age
The first steel coil spring was patented in 1857, initially used in chairs. In 1865, the first coil springs for beds were patented. In 1871, Henrich Westphal invented the innerspring mattress. By the early twentieth century, the typical American mattress had an innerspring core covered by a layer of cotton batting. Paget designed the first known modern water bed, and the first ones were sold by Harrods in 1895.
Marshall Coils, the individually wrapped coil springs used to build an entire mattress, were invented in 1899 and became popular by mid-century. Marshall Coil beds are still sold today.
In the 1950s, foam mattresses hit the general market. Vinyl made water beds affordable to the general public. By the 1980s, air beds made with vinyl are being sold on the open market.
Innerspring mattresses remain the most common type of mattress sold in the developed world. The sleeping surface is now as likely to be filled with artificial fibers as cotton. The core is increasingly made from latex or polyurethane foams. Air and water beds have been a small part of the mattress market for decades.