The History Of The Mattress

Most people don’t think about how today’s mattresses developed. Comfortable, supportive mattresses are something most of us take for granted, but they reflect years of innovation and refinement. Next time you lie down on your mattress think about the history hidden inside your humble mattress.


Men slept on the cold hard earth, but it didn’t take long for the women to demand something better, and keeping up with the Joneses eventually led to centuries of innovation.

The first mattresses were merely elevated sleeping surfaces to keep people off the ground. 10,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period, people began sleeping on primitive beds.

Since 9500 B.C., humans have been finding and trying different ways to get a good night’s sleep. Raising piles of leaves, grass, straw, or palm boughs and covering them with animal skin avoided drafts, dirt and reduced the ever-present pests. When living until 30 Years of age was a challenge, concerning yourself with luxury was probably not the highest priority.

King “Tut” in 3400 B.C., had a bed of ebony and gold. At least the Pharaohs enjoyed the benefits of raising a pallet off the ground.

The Roman upper classes were really into luxury and beauty (and pornographic sculpture).  They built the first luxury beds,  often decorated with silver, gold, or bronze.  The mattresses were stuffed with feathers, hay, wool, and reeds.

The first water bed was invented by the Romans.  The sleeper would recline in the cradle of water until drowsy, and then be lifted onto an adjacent cradle with a mattress, where they were rocked to sleep.

500 – 1500 A.D. To be prepared for an attack, it was not uncommon in the Middle Ages to sleep at a 45-degree angle, allowing them to get up and get going, as well as see the attackers approach.

During the Renaissance (1300-1600), Mattresses were made of pea shucks or straw, sometimes feathers, stuffed into coarse ticks, then covered with sumptuous velvet, brocades, and silks. Cast iron beds and cotton mattresses were developed during the 18th century, finally creating a sleeping space that was less attractive to bugs. Until that time, assorted vermin were simply accepted as a component of even the most royal beds (and don’t get me started about what was in the moats)

My mom always said “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” and the phrase “sleep tight” comes from the 1500-1699 period, when mattresses were suspended on ropes that needed regular tightening to prevent the mattress from sagging.

Louis XIV (1638-1715) reportedly owned 413 beds and was inordinately fond of staying in bed, often holding court in the royal bedroom. He displayed a special liking for the ultra-spacious and ostentatious variety. In the 16th and 17th centuries, mattresses were generally stuffed with straw or down, placed atop a latticework of rope.

Sealy’s Began in Sealy

In 1881 Daniel Haynes, a cotton gin builder, received a request for a cotton-filled mattress, and that is how the quest to make sure that we all had better quality sleep began.  At this time you were lying on cutting edge technology.  It was a non-tufted mattress.  His business grew exponentially, which led to more inventions and several patents, and among them, the machine that compressed cotton.  Fifteen years later, Haynes sold his patents to a Texas Company that retained the Sealy handle. Soon after, ad exec Earl Edwards penned the slogan “Sleeping on a Sealy is like sleeping on a cloud.” And with that, Sealy mattresses were a national phenomenon. By 1920, Sealy had 23 licensed plants in many regions

In the early 1900s 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 attacks by bugs, bacteria, and mildew. Remember the saying “Don’t let the bed bugs bite?”

In the year 1900, Mr. James Marshall invented and patented the famous Marshall Coil (otherwise known as the pocket coil). Each coil was placed inside a pocket made of cotton. Because each coil was individually suspended, the materials were placed on top provided ideal support, with excellent pressure relief and superb comfort. It took a lot of time and labor to make these because they were made by hand. This drove the cost up so high that they could only be found on luxury liners such as the Titanic.

Later in the 1920s, the innerspring mattress started gaining ground, yet people did not like how the cotton would get all matted and hard, so it wasn’t until after World War II that they really started catching on. Latex (my favorite) came first and Polyurethane foam came in as a cheap imitation in the ’50s.

In the 1950s the mattress industry was the first to “supersize” when King and Queen bedding made their first serious impact on the market. In an effort to sell higher-priced bedding, manufacturers promoted more and heavier steel coils with the idea that firmer is better. The “firm is best” concept caught on and is still largely accepted today.

The ’50s and early 60’s, quilted ticking’s became widespread. The boring flat surface (prison) striped ticking mattress covers are now multi-needle quilted in fashionable ticking colors and designs. Today, this style dominates the market.

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 1968, the first modern water bed was released, quickly gaining unprecedented popularity. Waterbeds were the first real innovation in bedding in over 100 years. Unlike spring beds, water shifts to conform to the exact shape of your body and actually pushes up to support curved areas of your body such as the small of your back. The result is the even distribution of pressure, greater comfort, fewer backaches, and a better night’s sleep.

Tempur-Pedic begins to evolve 1970’s: NASA invented Memory Foam, which was eventually refined and used by Tempur-Pedic and continues to be used in both medical and everyday home settings. It gained popularity because they were hypoallergenic, mold-resistant, and easy to maintain; they are still popular today for the same reasons. Memory foam is a gel-like material that adjusts to pressure and bounces back once the pressure is released.

Memory foam mattresses are often considered a good compromise between the solidness of a firm mattress and the comfort of a soft one. The firmness of a memory foam mattress depends on its density: higher density reacts to body heat, molding over a few minutes; and lower density is pressure-sensitive, molding quickly to pressure.

In 2007 Simmons takes the popular memory foam sleeping experience to new heights with the release of the ComforPedic® from the Beautyrest® line. Featuring The Better Memory Foam™, the ComforPedic mattress offers consumers the perfect body-conforming combination of soft comfort and firm support. This is particularly exciting to the Portland mattress industry because it was originally made right here in NE Portland. They flew Paiton Mumpower (my son) and I out there for the merger party. He was so cute. He was a 16-year-old young man telling these “suits” how to sell the Memory foam mattress product. I was very proud.

In my view, Simmons is always the first to try something new after the little guys have stumbled on development problems. They love to step off the edge and be the innovators. Sometimes it works, like the bowling ball bed, sometimes it goes a little wide of the mark, but they are a great partner. Because they always stand behind their choices who would have known eventually most companies would switch over to their coil system.

Both Sealy and Simmons have had generations of families working together to make our industry proud. When you ask if the mattress biz is a small industry everyone always smiles. I half-jokingly refer to it as the mattress mafia, because once you’re in, you can’t get out. The President, as well as the CEO, knows whom they sell to – including me and my one store chain. They worry about everyone succeeding and every customer is taken care of. If you sell a lot of mattresses but aren’t reputable, they won’t sell you their product. If their beds are on a sales floor, it’s a good bet it’s a good place to do business. I’m not going to say the prices are always great (that’s why we’re here!), just that they most likely do not sell used beds, they follow through with their customers, and they select quality products.

The mattress world has varied depending upon where you lived. As much as we have talked about what they are made of, we could take just as much time talking about sizes. There are all sorts of mattress size standards throughout Europe, Australia, and North America. Generally, compared to North America, mattress sizes in Europe are smaller and have a set length of 2 meters (almost 6’7”).