History of the Mattress

February 15, 2023

History of the Mattress

People have always required sleep, and because of this, comfortable inventions for sleeping and resting on have been being created since the beginning of the human species. Researchers have found early mattress versions that date as far back as the caveman period. Over the years, beds have become more improved and innovative in order to create the supportive, comfortable creations they are today.

Origin of the Term 'Mattress'

The term "mattress" has Arabic matrah origins, derived from the term "taraha" which means "to throw down." This term resulted in the Italian "materasso" and German "matratze", from which the term "materas" by the old French was derived. Between the period of the Crusades and the Norman times, the English mattress most likely started being used - an Arabic and French term combination for a sleep surface.

Early Sleep Surfaces

The initial sleep surface was likely made of piles of:

  • Moss
  • Leaves
  • Twigs
  • Rushes
  • Other material

These made for a more comfortable sleeping surface, and probably kept the individual dry as they slept.

Early troglodytes didn't have a sleep surface; they only had a cave to sleep in.

The Beginnings of the Mattress

There’s quite a bit of information, with some variations, floating around as to the origins of the mattressIt was in the Miocene period where the first bed ever was likely made, around 23 to five million years ago. Plant material was used by ancient apes to make padding for helping them sleep. This more ideal quality of sleep likely resulted in enhanced cognitive function, leading to the human species evolution.

Researchers believe the first genuine mattress they found was made 77,000 years ago in a KwaZulu-Natal Sibudu Cave in Africa. Layered plant material made up the base while leaves and grasses were used for the bedding. It wasn't that much thinner than mattresses you'd buy today. It was about 12 inches tall, and much bigger. The initial mattress was 22 sq. ft., big enough an entire family could sleep on it together!

3000 BCE to 1000 BCE Beds

Ancient Egyptians had wooden raised beds constructed of plain wood, or covered with jewels and gold, and made of ebony for those individuals of higher social status. Raised beds like these were ideal for sleeping people because they kept certain things away, such as:

  • Rodents
  • Insects
  • Snakes

The beds were completed with linen sheets, wool cushion mattresses, and a wooden or stone head support.

Approximately 3,600 years ago (around 1600 BCE), waterbeds were pioneered by the Persians. These were goatskin beds filled with water. The sun warmed them up. The functional or original purpose of waterbeds back then isn't known, although there have been certain theories stating they were used for comforting the elderly or sick.

1000 BCE Beds

Wealthy Romans started to use raised metal beds, that held straw-stuffed or feather mattresses, around 1000 BCE. Wool stringed, wooden bed frames holding up mattresses were used by those that were not as fortunate. Individuals who were extremely poor used a simple mat on the floor. However, for all wealth levels, it was common to use woolen blankets.

5th Century - 14th Century (Medieval History)

Wealth also dictated the type of bed people slept in in Medieval Europe. For individuals of wealth, beds became impressive and embellished. Often, they were a way of showing off people's wealth. This was the time of the four-poster bed invention, and a lot of headboards had very detailed carvings on them.

Mattresses were stuffed with downy, soft feathers. However, if you weren't wealthy, your mattress probably had hay stuffed in it, and it likely was resting on a simple platform made of wood. Similar to the first mattresses found in Sibidu Cave, one bed was typically shared by a whole medieval peasant family.

15th Century - 18th Century (Renaissance)

From Medieval to Renaissance Europe - peasants' beds didn't change all that much. However, for the wealthy people, bed frames started to become more detailed and embellished, and an entire room was dedicated for them (a bedroom). A lot of people also had a bed stored under the primary mattress (trundle bed), usually used for servants or other family members.

19th Century - Today (Modern History)

Today mattresses and beds are still mostly constructed of the same structure individuals have been using from the very beginning - a raised bed frame with a mattress in it.

Springs became introduced to mattresses in the 1800s to provide more support. In the 1940s, North America saw its first futon, which came from Japan. These days there are various mattress options all constructed from various materials.

Types of Mattresses

  1. The Innerspring Mattress

You could feasibly say Heinrich Westphal was the first to "invent the mattress" because he was the first to actually use "springs", which provided the support. So, essentially, this really is the start of the mattress as everyone knows it. The first real innerspring mattress probably used padding made from bundled cotton, wool, and even goose and swan down (feather bed) to cover the springs.

  1. Polyurethane and Memory Foam Mattress

It was in 1937, that polyurethane polymer was first constructed, but in a solid form. However, in the late 1950s, polyurethane was being manufactured as a foam that made mattresses more comfortable (either as a solid foam block, or innerspring mattress padding) to sleep on.

After that came the high G-force fast jets, and the first space travel attempts. NASA developed a new foam type in 1966, which you know as "memory foam", and had the job of absorbing the pressures pilots experienced by G-forces.

  1. Latex Foam Mattress

Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, individuals used natural materials as a soft padding. But, there wasn't any real resilience, even with the best natural padding. When compressed, there was no "push back." You simply sank into the mattress. Eventually, springs provided a little bounce, but the padding just ended up becoming flat and uncomfortable. There weren't any foams at this time.

Dunlop invented the latex foam process through vulcanized rubber sap in 1926. This was really the first real foam used in mattresses, and the same foam we use today. The basics of innerspring latex foam mattresses were available by the 1930s, and when lying down on mattresses, you no longer flattened them out. Because of the foam and springs resiliency, they sprung back.

Who Was the Mattress Invented By?

Actually, nobody really knows who invented the mattress definitively. A mattress's dictionary definition is "a fabric case filled with springy, firm, or soft material people use to sleep on." So, in this case, the Romans or ancient Greeks likely invented the soft mattress, and as technology advanced, so too did the mattress.

Mattresses have been being developed and improved, according to whatever technology was around during any given time, throughout the centuries. The mattresses you sleep on these days were invented in these times; therefore, they're likely to get better and better as technology and science continue advancing.

Patrick Gunther

Patrick is an accomplished writer. He has been in the retail mattress space for the past 13 years, and more specifically in the natural mattress niche. He blogs on the subjects of natural mattresses, sleep, health, fitness, and green living.