Illustration by Anne Bentley
I’m reading a lot about how mattresses are made. I do this reading in the wee hours, right after I roll over into the crater that has appeared in my 20-year-old mattress and wake myself up. I turn on my iPhone to continue my important mattress research and inadvertently wake my husband. Clearly, we need a new mattress soon.
As with any home project, one thing leads to another. If we’re buying a new mattress, my husband and I decide, we might as well upgrade from a queen size to a king. To accommodate a king-size mattress, we’ll need to buy a king-size bed frame. To make space for a king-size bed, we’ll have to rearrange the bedroom furniture. That means relocating our 18-year-old ceiling fan, which we should replace while we are at it, and then patching and repainting the plaster ceiling. Suddenly, my husband and I find ourselves staring out the bedroom window and talking about building a small addition to the back of the house.
Buying a mattress should be the easy part. We just want a bigger version of the same make and model that performed so admirably for two decades: an extra-firm mattress with hand-tied springs by a company named Shifman. I telephone Bloomingdale’s, which is where I bought our old Shifman, to ask if they still sell a mattress and box spring like that. They do—only the set now retails there for $11,688. If I want it with a pillow top, it costs $13,842.
I’m so shocked I have to lie down.
My husband and I set out one wintry weekend to find a bigger bed and a new mattress that don’t cost as much as a car. As we visit furniture showrooms and mattress stores it occurs to us that the best way to test a mattress is to crawl on top of it and assume our usual sleeping positions. That would mean getting into bed in front of strangers, rolling over onto our sides and spooning. I’m a lapsed-Catholic Midwesterner; he’s a Quaker from Connecticut. We’re not doing that.
Instead, we carefully clear away the decorative pillows that adorn the beds in many furniture showrooms, take off our shoes, primly sit side by side with our backs against the headboard and watch other shoppers go by as if we’re at home watching TV in bed. Then we reverse out, over and over again all weekend: pillows off, shoes off, shoes on, pillows on.
By Sunday night, we have neither a new mattress nor a new bed, but we know what we don’t want. We have launched this search just as my husband, a family medicine doctor, happens to be listening to a lecture series called “Environmental Toxins in Everyday Life.” So we know we don’t want a bed or mattress made of mystery materials like particleboard, memory foam or chemical flame-retardants, all of which can release dangerous toxins. We want a bed and mattress made in the USA by manufacturers who are transparent about the materials they use.
I begin searching Craigslist for a used king-size bed frame made the old-fashioned way, with hardwoods. Buying vintage, I tell my husband, keeps someone else’s unwanted bed out of a landfill. The bed of our dreams appears one morning on my phone screen: a magnificent, hand-painted chinoiserie four-poster. I call the seller to ask if the bed contains particleboard. She has no idea. She purchased it 15 years ago. She still has her receipt, which lists the manufacturer. I Google the company. It specializes in furniture made in the USA of fine hardwoods. Sold! Thrilled, I show Craigslist photos of the bed to friends. One friend can’t decide if the bed evokes illicit dalliances in the time of the Borgia popes or Fifty Shades of Grey. Everybody agrees: That bed looks like sex.
The day the movers deliver it, my husband is almost giddy. “I love this bed,” he says. “I love this bed. I love this bed.”
Now all we need is that new mattress. A new generation of mattress-makers now sells directly to consumers online. I peruse sites like Casper.com, Zenhaven.com and SleepingOrganic.com that market eco-friendly-sounding mattresses made of latex. At least one internet company offers to build a mattress to our precise requirements if my husband and I fill out a questionnaire that asks for our names, heights, weights and a detailed list of any medical concerns. Online mattress shopping, it turns out, is a lot like internet dating. You never have to make a commitment because returns are easy and there are always new options popping up. But my husband and I like to commit. Neither of us wants to buy, try and return a series of mattresses.
I knew what I had to do. I had to go back out there to brick-and-mortar stores and roll around in public.
At the Mattress Firm on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, I wait until the store is almost empty before I stretch out on a Simmons Beautyrest Legend Garrison Extra Firm. I roll onto my right side as the cheerful salesman extols this mattress’ virtues. I roll onto my left side. I roll onto my stomach. “This is awkward,” I say, face down in the mattress. The salesman assures me it’s nothing they haven’t seen before.
In January, I visit the Bloomingdale’s in Chevy Chase, where a close likeness of my old Shifman mattress is on sale at a steep discount. I lie down on the Shifman with the pillow top. The saleswoman continues her pitch as she half-reclines on the bed next to me. It is like being at a slumber party, only creepy. I close my eyes and try to imagine sleeping on this mattress for the next 20 years. I hear the unmistakable sound of a nail clipper. I open my eyes and sit upright fast. The saleswoman shrugs and says she’s broken a nail.
At Savvy Rest on Rockville Pike I find testing the Zenspring Mattress so restful that I start to doze. The whole store is restful. The Charlottesville, Virginia-based company is 49 percent employee owned. Their mattresses are certified organic. Their mattress covers zip open so you can lift the hood and see what’s inside. You can order split mattresses with one side soft and the other firm for partners with differing preferences. You can switch out layers for softer or firmer feels if your mattress needs change. Savvy Rest salespeople are not on commission. And customers sometimes nap. The known record, my salesperson says, is four hours.
Our mattress search has lasted so long that I’ve made a spreadsheet to keep track of our best options: pros, cons, costs, warranties, materials, reviews. Whenever I mention yet another new mattress option to my husband, we both laugh.
“OK, mattress idea number 365,” he says. “Go!”
He reminds me that I actually got down on the floor at one store to test a thin wool-stuffed futon that looked like a Scandinavian prison mattress. “You know you are in trouble,” he says, “when you start to think: That could work.”
Then one day the laughter stops. I ask my husband if he would make sure the slats on our new old bed are secure and level in preparation for ordering some mattress. He walks upstairs carrying a power drill and a level. I hear 30 seconds of drilling. He walks downstairs wearing his neutral doctor face: the one that says I’ve found something concerning, but I don’t want to scare the hell out of you. “I think the sideboards on the bed might be made out of particleboard,” he says. The drill wasn’t making a clean hole. “The material doesn’t splinter,” he says. “It kind of powders.”
No, no, no, no, no.
I can tell my husband feels badly for me. “You couldn’t have been more careful,” he says. “You asked all the right questions. If that bed was off-gassing toxic fumes when it was made 15 years ago, it probably isn’t now.” My husband leaves me to grieve in private. He takes the grocery list and goes to Whole Foods for more organic vegetables and milk produced by grass-fed cows.
Alone, I search our bed for clues that it is not made of formaldehyde-leaching particleboard. I search for proof that it is, in fact, the sexy, healthy bed of our dreams.
I try to lift one corner post, telling myself that the bed wouldn’t be so heavy if it wasn’t made out of solid wood. I tap on the footboard, as if I could recognize the sound of solid wood versus particleboard. I run my hand over the back of the headboard. Suddenly, I feel it: a sticker of some kind. I try to drag the bed away from the wall so I can read the sticker. The bed is too heavy for me to budge. I wedge my iPhone behind the bed and take a photo of the sticker. I can’t wait to read it. Maybe it says: “Made in the USA of sustainably harvested hardwoods by workers making a living wage and protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
It doesn’t. It says: “Made in China.”
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.