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I last purchased a mattress about six years ago. As I remember, it required a five-minute waltz around the British homewares store John Lewis, a bit of bouncing and some fairly animated discussion about springs per square centimetre vis-à-vis memory foam which, at the time, was considered rather common. Some were stuffed with horse hair or wool, which in days gone by would have required restuffing or “carding” by an experienced professional.
I walked away with something that cost the same as a second-hand car and strict instructions that I must turn it every month in order to preserve its unique temper. Needless to say, it hasn’t moved a millimetre since being hauled up the stairs and on to the bed frame.
I never expected to give any further thought to mattresses, but lately I have found myself besieged with urgent information on the subject. Every Tube carriage proliferates with signage advertising conical pocket springs, promising “the best night’s sleep of your life”; every podcast is interrupted by some sponsor blathering on about “Airgocell layers” and “viscoelastic memory foam”. I stay in glamorous hotels that offer “pillow menus”, and make decidedly non-glamorous stops in motels that boast of their “king-size Hypnos beds”. Last year, the consumer guide Which? offered its best buy prize to an Emma mattress that cost a mere £379.
Could it be that other people are getting a better night’s sleep than I? And on cheaper bedding, too? This has piqued my full attention.
The great mattress disruption probably began with the advent of start-ups such as the US-based Casper, and the UK’s Eve and Simba, all promising cheaper, sleep-optimised technologies in straight-to-consumer businesses, part of a drive to crack what is estimated to be a $15bn market. Sales have been brisk. Casper, which launched in 2014, has seen its revenues triple to $300m in its first three years and has since launched pillows and dog beds. According to Forbes, online mattress sales could soon account for more than 10 per cent of the market.
Likewise, the beauty industry is burgeoning with sprays, potions and unguents designed to aid better sleep. Fashion has become newly taken with “loungewear” — another word for pyjamas worn during the day — which has been identified as one of the fastest-growing categories by the luxury retailer Matches.com.
The subject — and science — of sleep has possessed our cultural lives, too. Arianna Huffington has built a second empire based on her TED talk and now bestselling book The Sleep Revolution, in which she advocates for eight hours sleep by eliminating mobile phones from her “sleep sanctuary” (or bedroom) and lighting candles instead. And there are a bazillion new sleep aids, apps and gizmos designed to facilitate swift passage to the land of nod. They even gave the Nobel Prize to those dudes who unlocked the chronotype, elucidating the inner workings of the biological clock, and excusing our habit for sleeping until midday as part of our genetic birthright.
At a time when we’re getting less of it than ever, sleep has become a very sexy subject — the bed a fetish object. The “Sleep in America” survey, conducted in 2008, found that 44 per cent of those polled weren’t getting the average of seven hours and 18 minutes sleep a night they needed to feel “their best”. The UK-based Sleep Council says a third of Britons survive on five to six hours sleep a night.
But hang on a second. The temptation to cast westerners as the woefully sleep-deprived victims of a capitalist culture that allows us no rest seems a bit rich, does it not? We’re not working down the mines any more, after all, or currently being shelled. Moreover, a good part of this new sleep obsession is actually being funded by the very agencies flogging us the sleep aids in the first place.
In 2015, Casper, the mattress company, launched a media offshoot called Van Winkle’s to “make sleep journalism a thing”. According to Jeff Chapin, co-founder and chief product officer at Casper, their objective was not only to sell mattresses but to start a “narrative” so that sleep became “part of a lifestyle”. Last month Van Winkle’s was wound down to re-emerge as Woolly, an online magazine about comfort and modern life which, according to a spokesperson, “emerged from Casper’s founding philosophy that sleep — in addition to food and fitness — is the third pillar of wellness.”
Creating a narrative is one of the weirder, more pernicious trends in recent years, affecting everything we buy, from bananas to handbags. It’s telling that even a mattress, that dull old lump of sponge on which you throw yourself each night, has become an essential chapter in our “story” — something we’re willing to pay for because it expresses some aspect of a lifestyle we hadn’t realised needed expressing until now. Sleep, once considered to be a basic life-sustaining necessity, a daily event that, unless one suffers from insomnia or small children, occurs as naturally and inevitably as blinking has now become a commodified, luxury experience.
Here’s another story. It’s quite short but I think it too could transform your own sleep narrative. Want to get more shut-eye? Try going to bed a bit earlier. And get some fresh air. The end.
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