The Progression of Mattresses, From Straw to Rubber

Written by Lydia Kariuki

The mattress, as we know it, has come a long way having begun its winding journey from as The mattress, as we know it, has come a long way, having begun its winding journey from as early as 77,000 thousand years ago. Many things have changed about it, starting from the raw materials used to make it to the structure, size, and function.

The word mattress was derived from two Arabic words: “matrah,” meaning “mat,” and “taraha,” meaning “throw.”

In earlier times, mattresses were designed and made of straw in homo sapien style. Piles of straw were heaped on the ground, and insect-repelling plants were added to keep the gnats at bay.. Later on, the Egyptians started using wool to make mattresses placed on beds that were elevated from the ground. Ropes tied in lattice fashion were used to support the mattresses and were unfortunately very hospitable to bedbugs.

The Romans used hay, reeds, wool, or feathers to stuff mattresses. Feathers, a preserve of the aristocracy, developed a stink with time and had to be done away with. People were constantly chasing after feathered animals to refurbish their mattresses, hence looking for less cumbersome alternatives.

Later on, in the mid-1800s, cotton-stuffed mattresses became a thing, especially among the middle-class. By this time, metallic beds were commonplace, and the combination of metal and cotton was less attractive to bugs.

Mattresses were used not only for resting but also for entertaining guests, socializing, and a symbol of status. Louis XIV of France is reputed to have frequently held court in his royal bedroom to show off his massive collection of beds.

From hay, mattresses were then stuffed with innerspring (an invention of Heinrich Westphal) to make them firm and comfortable on the back and increase their ability to withstand compression pressure. This was a significant improvement, but the mattress still had a long way to go. The spring coils were first used on the mattress in the 1870s and resembled the springs on horse-drawn carriages’ seats. It took another half a decade before this kind of mattress became a hit in the market. In the meantime, Heinrich Westphal died in poverty. Though modern mattresses are still stuffed with innerspring, the coil type has evolved over the years.

In the late 1970s, a new type of mattress was created by NASA to provide a better cushion (shock absorber) for the airlines. This was the memory foam or viscoelastic polyurethane mattress. This mattress was released into the mainstream market in 1991. This kind of bed is commonly used in hospitals because of its cushioning, especially for bed-ridden patients, to prevent bedsores on pressure points. It is also a good choice for those with back pain.

The modern latex mattress is a century-old in the market. Latex is an organic and natural product that is derived from rubber trees. A story is told of how one man used his wife’s cake mixer to whip up latex foam into being. The man, a scientist, working with the Dunlop Company, started an exciting journey towards discovering the rubber- foam mattress as we know it today. The shipping process, which was refined over time, introduced air bubbles into the rubber to improve its cushioning ability. This was the beginning of the Dunlop and Talalay processes, which are now used to manufacture natural latex mattresses.

We can’t say for sure if we have reached the climax of searching for the best mattress. What we know for sure is that we have come a long way, from straw to rubber.

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Lydia Kariuki

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