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The Amazing History of the Mattress and How It Can Save Your Life

Many of us spend our happiest hours on our mattress. However, did you know that your mattress can actually save your life? Here's how!
Tammie Birdwell • March 20, 2019

Her sons have grown up now. But she will never forget the hours she spent with them as children huddled in the tub underneath a mattress -- waiting for the storm to blow over.

She was from Pennsylvania, living in Texas as a military wife with a toddler and a newborn.


The Texans in her neighborhood likely weren't hiding in their bathtubs every time a warning flashed across the screen.

But one thing you could count on was this:

If the television beeped out a tornado warning, you would find her and her two young sons in the tub, covered with a mattress until the danger had passed.

And the day a town 20 minutes away from them got wiped off the map, she was beyond grateful she had something to do to keep her and her boys safe.

Fortunately, our young mother and her sons made it through the storm unscathed.

Sadly, you can't say the same thing about the town of Jarrell, Texas.

Check out the video below:

To this day, the Jarrell tornado is the largest ever recorded in the state of Texas.

In Texas, and many places where storms like this happen, most people can't afford to dig basements or bomb shelters.

For many people, the only option is to do like our young mother did -- a mattress in a central location in the house.

More on that later.

The Mattresses of Yesterday Will Blow Your Mind

Obviously, as long as people have been sleeping, they have placed something underneath of themselves for protection.

Even in prehistoric times, people laid down straw, leaves, and other materials for padding.

Over time, people figured out how to start stuffing cloth sacks with things available in that geographical area like:

  • Straw
  • Palm Fronds
  • Pea shucks
  • Feathers
  • Leaves
  • Moss rushes

And later, in the mid-18th century, people started making mattresses using things like:

  • Cotton
  • Wool
  • Coconut fiber
  • Horsehair

Overall, the only thing that changed over time was the frames that held the mattresses.

Rich people could afford elaborate frames while those with less money made do with items they found locally.

The Coil

In 1857, someone invented a steel coil spring.

At first, manufacturers only used those coils in chair cushions.

Then, finally, in 1871 a German man Heinrich Westphal invented the first coil spring mattress.

Sadly, Heinrich died a very poor man -- he never profited from his invention.

The Modern Mattress Difference

Thankfully, mattress technology didn't stop with the invention of the coil spring mattress.

You see, the stuffing inside those old mattresses still had many problems -- like going flat after a while.

In the 1920s, though, Dunlop developed a special foam and by the 1930s, mattress manufacturers started using that.

Then, as with many products, NASA popped on the scene and changed the game in the mattress industry with memory foam.

Scientists originally designed memory foam in the early 1970s to help pilots and astronauts handle the G-forces in a spacecraft during takeoff.

In 1992, Tempur-Pedic launched the first American consumer goods manufactured using NASA's memory foam.

In the mattress world, it's been game on ever since.

Sleeping on a Bad Mattress Can Be Bad for Your Health

Before we get into the more obvious ways a mattress can save your life, let's talk about how an old mattress can be a very bad thing for your health.

A bad mattress can:

  • Cause stress
  • Trigger allergies
  • Lead to pain in your back or hips
  • Make you or your partner snore louder/more frequently
  • Cause you to become overweight (studies show sleep deprivation causes some people to binge eat)
  • Lead you to have a weak immune system
  • Increase your risk of a heart condition (lack of sleep can increase your risk of a heart condition by 48 percent)
  • Impair your memory

How to Tell If It's Time for a New Mattress

If you or your mattress have the following issues, it's time to think a new one:

  • It's over eight years old
  • You don't feel like you rested when you wake up
  • You wake up with aches and pains in your back and hips
  • If you find that sleeping somewhere else is more comfortable
  • Creaks or makes other noises
  • Has a visible sag
  • When someone lays down they "hammock" into the mattress
  • You have a worsening dust allergy
  • You have lost or gained a lot of weight lately

Mattress Safety Tips

While we are certainly talking today about ways that a mattress can save your life, first, you should know a little bit about mattress safety.

For example, if you have an infant at home, there are things you must do to keep them safe:

  • Put babies to sleep on their backs
  • Keep the babies head uncovered while they are sleeping
  • Watch for gaps between the mattress and crib slat/walls/bedside tables (babies can easily get their arms, legs, or even heads stuck in there)
  • Keep the area free of long strings or ties like those in blinds
  • Dress the baby appropriately for the temperature

Check out this video:

Additionally, regardless of their age, no one should sleep on a mattress made of toxic materials.

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” -- Homer, The Odyssey

When you are shopping for a new mattress, read its certifications to make sure it passes basic safety parameters.

For more information on non-toxic mattresses, click here.

Can a Mattress save Your Life in Other Ways?

Now it's time to get to the meat and potatoes of our exercise today -- we will find out how a mattress can save your life in some pretty extreme circumstances.

For example, did you know that an air mattress can save your life?


Houston, Texas - Many of us remember when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in 2017.

Not as many of us heard about a 13-year-old boy named Virgil Smith, but we should have.

You see, Virgil and his mom had already found safety in their neighbor's second-floor apartment.

So, when the young boy and his mother heard screams for help from the other apartments, Virgil didn't have to enter back into the danger zone.

However, that's precisely what he did.

Virgil knows how to swim.

However, Virgil also knows that many of his neighbors can't swim at all.

So, as soon as he heard those calls for help, the brave young man sprung into action.

“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go get them right now,’" Virgil said. “I gotta go help my friends.”

Virgil grabbed an air mattress to use as a float, headed out the door, and swam through the eight-foot-deep flood waters to rescue his friends and neighbors.

Using the air mattress as a floatation device, Virgil saved the lives of 17 people that day -- including an elderly woman in a wheelchair and her dog.

Mind you, that brave young man did all that at two in the morning while it was completely dark outside.

Check out the video below:

His actions that day were so heroic, Virgil received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

"We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up … discovering we have the strength to stare it down." -- Eleanor Roosevelt

Other possible uses for an air mattress

Of course, not everyone lives in an area where hurricanes are an issue.

However, using one as a floatation device during a flood is not the only reason for keeping an air mattress or two around the house.

For example, if you live in even a one-story house and it catches on fire, an air mattress is a simple way to escape through any window in case of a fire.

Or, an air mattress is ideal if you need to flee your home for an extended period of time quickly.

With a few quick, easy, lightweight, and portable air mattresses, you can ensure a little bit of comfort no matter where you end up for the night.


Obviously, an air mattress won't do you as much good during a tornado as a regular mattress, one could still help a little, though.

However, like the mother in our opening story, a regular mattress during a tornado can save your life and the lives of your children.

According to the experts, these are the recommended safety tips you should follow in case of a tornado:

  • If you have a basement or storm shelter, go there immediately
  • Those that do not have a storm shelter should go to the lowest level of their home
  • Go to an interior room that has no windows like a bathroom, hallway, or closet
  • Stay in the center of that room, if possible
  • Get under a sturdy piece of furniture (table, desk, or mattress)
  • Use a blanket to protect your head and neck if possible

Check out this story of a mother who saved her children by following these instructions:

And she's not the only one, either.

Shandra Totty of Roanoke, Virginia did the same thing.

The second Shandra found out a tornado was on the way, she rushed into the basement and covered herself and her baby with an old mattress.

“We were getting ready to take it to the dump but we didn't and it's the only thing that saved me," said Shandra. "You can see the sewer pipe literally almost got us. It's just amazing."

What about a fire?

First, before we can talk about how a mattress can keep you safe during a fire, we should talk about something else.

A mattress can be a source of extreme danger in your home during a fire.

Because of their size and weight, a mattress is, "one of the largest fuel sources in your home."

According to experts, within 3 to 10 minutes of a mattress catching on fire, the flames will likely rise 4 to 5 feet over the top.

And within 5 to 10 minutes, the mattress will burn so hot it will start catching other things in the room on fire.

Check it out in the video below:

So, if the fire started in the bedroom or the mattress is otherwise consumed, it won't be any help at all.

We do have some good news concerning mattresses and flammability:

In 2007, the U.S. Government passed a law that forced mattress manufacturers to use new, improved flame retardant technology -- so today's mattresses burn much more slowly now.


However, and here's where air mattresses come back into play again, the right mattress at the right place can save your life in a fire, as well.

Check out this video:

As you can see, in certain situations, a mattress can provide safety if you have to jump out of those second and third story windows.

That day, a mattress helped save six lives.

A mattress can even save you during an earthquake

While most of the continental United States doesn't really have earthquakes as they experience them in other parts of the globe, but they can still get quite serious here.

Especially in places like California.

Here are some safety tips to keep you and your family safe if the earth starts to rumble:

  • Have an emergency plan in place
  • Have your home emergency kit ready to go
  • Locate a central place to go in your home: perhaps the same place you choose for a tornado
  • Know how to turn off the gas and water to your home
  • If you can get under your bed or if you are on it when the shaking starts, stay there and protect your head
  • Stay away from things that can fall on you like bookcases and large televisions

For another option, check out this video of an earthquake-proof bed:

We aren't sure what's more terrifying -- that bed or an earthquake.

And always remember, depending on what type of house you have, you can use a mattress in any plan that may require a jump.

A Mattress Can save You When You Least Expect It

Finally, a mattress can save your life when you least expect it.

Like when you are traveling down the road on your bike, for example.

Check out this insane video:

Granted, it was the mattress that knocked the guy off his bike.

However, if the mattress wasn't there for the landing part, this would have ended much differently for that Brazilian bicyclist.

Taking Proper Care of Your Investment

Now that we have learned the many ways your mattress can save your life during an emergency, let's talk about how to keep it nice for as long as possible.

Bed bugs

No one likes to think about these nasty little critters.

Unfortunately, the rates of bed bug infestations in the United States are on the rise.

So, no matter how clean you are, you are always at risk of finding these little suckers hiding in the crevices of your mattress.

First, check out this video so you can learn to identify bed bugs:

Now, if you just realized you have a problem, don't panic -- there are things you can do yourself to take care of them.

Get out!

To get rid of bed bugs, do the following:

  • Clean the room thoroughly and pick up all the clutter
  • Throw infested garments and linens in the laundry (with hot water)
  • When you dry the infested laundry, use the highest setting for at least half an hour because heat kills bed bugs and their eggs
  • Dismantle the bed frame so you can scrub the entire thing thoroughly
  • Clean the entire room from top to bottom
  • Vacuum
  • Caulk any cracks in the floor or walls (bed bugs can crawl through a space no wider than a business card)
  • Check any electronics thoroughly because bed bugs can get into the little cracks
  • Inspect the walls (remove electrical plates and check underneath)

Now, here's how you get those little beasties out of your mattress:

You have several options here:

First, you can get yourself one of these mattress encasement bags.

To use this, you simply zip it up around the mattress and leave it there for a year.

Check out the video below:

It works by cutting off the oxygen to the bed bugs and killing them off.

Or, you can get yourself one of these mattress liners which will also work as prevention.

How to Get Rid of Water Stains

Next, no matter how hard we try, most people end up with some sort of water stain on their mattress.

Here's how to get rid of a water stain:

  1. Remove the bedding
  2. Use a small cloth and dampen it with water
  3. Sprinkle powdered laundry detergent on the stain
  4. Using the damp cloth, scrub the detergent over the affected area
  5. Keep scrubbing until the stain is gone
  6. Use the brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner to get up the rest of the detergent
  7. Grab your hair dryer to dry up the area

Or, watch the video below for another option:

As you can see, there are a number of different ways you can go about cleaning up those nasty stains -- and none of them are very complicated.

How to Freshen up a Funky Mattress

Finally, we will end our lessons with a tutorial on making that funky mattress smell brand new again.

First, you need to gather a few supplies:

  • Baking soda
  • Upholstery cleaner
  • Laundry detergent
  • Warm water
  • Spray bottle
  • Dryer sheets
  • Fan
  • Vacuum cleaner

Then, take the following steps to get things nice and fresh:

  1. Remove all the bedding
  2. Let things air out for a few moments
  3. Sprinkle the baking soda over the top of the mattress
  4. Vacuum the entire surface of the mattress
  5. Use the upholstery cleaner if the mattress is moldy or musty
  6. Place down dryer sheets before you replace the bedding

Now You Can Sleep Soundly Knowing Your Mattress Has Your Back

Well, folks, there you have it.

Now you know where your mattress came from and how to use it to keep yourself and your family safe in the event of an emergency.

Now, it's time to rest easy knowing that your mattress has your back. Do you have any advice on how to keep your mattress in tip-top shape? Share them with us in the comments!