Bedding has changed significantly from the days of feather pallets covered in burlap. Today’s bedding can be so technologically advanced as to sometimes be referred to as sleep systems. Whether you need these advanced sleep system beds is debatable. Beds are generally comprised of the same elements: some sort of mattress, a frame to support it, and sheets and pillowcases to cover it.


The word mattress derives from the word mat. In ancient times people used mats or pallets for sleeping and this method is still common in some places. Mats were originally thin pads that could be placed anywhere on the floor or ground to make sleeping arrangements more comfortable. These pads could be easily rolled up for storage or transport from one location to another which was convenient for nomads and herders. As societies became more stable, mats and mattresses, subsequently became larger and more comfortable. They became more permanent furniture items on some sort of frame or platform.

Mattresses are composed of three components: the core, the foundation, and the exterior material. Originally, the core of the mattress consisted of natural materials such as straw, feathers, and sometimes even paper or rice. Modern mattresses have an inner spring core - coiled steel springs support the sleeper. Conversely, this technology also allows for mattresses to be produced and sold for less depending on the use of certain materials. The comfort and durability of innerspring mattresses depend largely on the number of coils in addition to their gauge and thickness of the coils. Generally, a higher coil count is considered a higher quality mattress. Consumer Reports' June 2005 issue said a coil count of 390 on a queen-sized mattress was plenty.

Mattress Cores

There are four separate types of coils that are used to produce mattresses; Bonnell, Marshall, offset, and continuous. Bonnell coil springs are the most common kind and least expensive kind of spring in use for mattress production and also the oldest type of coil. Bonnell coil springs were originally used in the buggy seats of the 1800’s and are hourglass shaped in that they are wider at the top and bottom and thinner in the middle. Bonnell coils are tied or bracketed together to retain the shape of the mattress.

Marshall coils are sometimes referred to as pocketed coils. These coil springs are not tied together but instead the fabric case in which each coil is wrapped maintains the shape of the mattress. These tempered steel coils are sometimes compressed by the manufacturer resulting in a firmer mattress which also allows for less distribution of motion from one side of the bed to the other.

Offset coils are more expensive than Bonnell or Marshall coil springs but they are designed to hinge for more support and comfort in a mattress. Offset coils conform better to body shape than Bonnell or Marshall coils. Continuous coils are thought to provide the maximum coil strength by working together and gathering strength off of the next coil. Continuous coils work like offset coils in that they conform and distribute body weight efficiently and limit sideways motion; two qualities that are highly prized in today’s modern mattress.

Other mattress cores include air, foam, and water. Air mattresses range from the easily inflatable camping or temporary beds to the advanced pocketed and adjustable air mattresses designed as high-end luxury products. The price of the luxury air mattress is comparable to a quality inner spring mattress but makers boast that enhanced technology makes these mattresses more comfortable and just as durable. The primary draws of these air-chamber sleep systems are: (1) that the technology allows for individuals on each side of the bed to adjust the settings of the mattress to their own firmness preference, and (2) that the mattress dampens the transfer of lateral motion due to the use of two separate pocketed mattress divisions.

At first, foam mattresses were made from latex foam. So-called memory foam is dense, viscoelastic material was originally developed to reduce the pressure that astronauts felt during shuttle mission take-offs. Memory foam mattresses provide long lasting, motion resistant, hypo-allergenic, and completely supportive sleep comfort.

Water mattresses have evolved from their sloshy origins to self supporting mattresses that some people swear are the most comfortable sleep systems available. Because water at room temperature tends to be cooler than normal body temperature, water mattresses must be heated to be comfortable. It is this heating ability that draws many users to the waterbed as they are able to raise or lower the temperature of the bed according to their own comfort level. Water mattresses were at one time one large water-filled bubble. These days water mattresses contain pockets similar to the more advanced air mattresses that support the mattress and the sleeper.

Mattress Foundations

Perhaps the most commonly used mattress foundation is the box spring. A wooden “box” houses heavy-duty springs that is placed under the mattress to provide support. Slat foundations are simple boards that are placed horizontally under the mattress for support on a frame. Grid foundations are manufactured from a combination of wood and steel.

Mattress Exterior Layers

Almost all mattresses have quilted exteriors. This quilted exterior is usually made of comfortable materials and cover several layers of padding that are intended to insulate the coils. Even modern water and air mattresses sometimes contain these layers. The mattress exterior is often a combination of layers of foam, cotton padding, and fabrics. Some modern mattresses add the luxury of a feather or down mattress “topper” for additional comfort. These tops are either built into a no-flip mattress or can be purchased separately.

The Do-Not-Remove Tag

All mattresses and pillows come adorned with the anxiety producing do-not-remove-under-penalty-of-law tag. This innocuous piece of reinforced paper strikes fear into the hearts of millions of consumers who would love to cut the annoying tag off of their product. Well, consumers unite! Go right on ahead and rip off that tag! There are no pillow police or mattress monitors that will show up at your door, cuffs in hand, ready to cart you off to the tag remover reformatory. The tag was intended to provide important consumer information regarding the compliance of the construction materials with federal use and flammability regulations, the content of the product, as well as to give consumers product care instructions and wearability info. If the tag is removed by the seller, it is certainly a violation of federal law. However, the consumer is welcome to remove the tag at will.

Buying Mattresses

Americans reportedly spend $17 billion per years on mattresses (according to Reuters). The website Lifehacker recommends trying out cheap mattresses before more expensive ones. There is an enormous variation in mattress prices. We have not seen evidence that expensive mattresses are better.

Used Mattresses

Used mattresses are cheaper than new ones, but you have to overcome the queasiness factor. Other people have slept on the it, probably for years, and their bodily fluids and skin cells have gone into the substance of the mattress. Cleaning this type of furniture is harder than cleaning sheets.

There was a report in Florida a couple years ago about a business selling used mattresses as new. Another story in Georgia was about similar fraud and mold inside a supposedly new mattress. The Federal Trade Commission recommends buyers of new mattresses insist on seeing the "new" tag they are legally required to have and checking this tag is intact before the delivery people leave the house.

More on sheets and pillowcases.

What is the deal with "sleep numbers"?

Bed bugs

The Better Sleep Council - Don't be fooled by their name or their nonprofit status, the Better Sleep Council is the mattress industry and they attempt to get people to buy mattresses. Their website encourages people to throw out old mattresses after 5 to 7 years or even sooner if you find you've had a better night's sleep in another bed. This is probably overkill; we have more thoughts here.

Mattress sizes and
disposing old mattresses


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