Aside from sleeping bags, air mattresses and perhaps a giant sponge, no piece of lounge furniture is more portable than the futon. At the same time, the comfort, style and durability of the futon is equal to the nicest bed you can find. With both portability and quality, you would think that the futon was a state of the art invention among the world of furniture. The truth is, futons have been around for hundreds of years, and they’ve certainly come a long way.
For thousands of years, cotton has been used as a main source of bedding. While some civilizations used straw mats, woven ropes, and even a wooden slab, the ancient Babylonians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians preferred cotton as their bedding material. Due to its loftiness and breathability, cotton stood alongside silk and wool mattresses as the optimal product for sleeping by the upper class.
But it wasn’t until the 17th century when cotton bedding would evolve into the futon. In Japan, “bedclothes” were made by stuffing cloth with cotton and wool, and spreading them out on a special kind of flooring known as “tatami”. Tatami was a series of mats made of rice straw, and comprised most of the flooring in Japanese homes.
To accommodate the light, sturdy flooring, the Japanese invented an extremely lightweight and portable mattress to lie out when sleeping, then roll up and store away after waking up. The “futon”, which comes from the Japanese word “bedding”, consisted of long staple cotton, the most expensive cotton ball. It was important to use long staple cotton because long staple cotton would keep the mattress from pulling apart, and also prevent lumps from forming.
Despite its efficiency, the futon was only available to nobles. Rich people could afford bedclothes, while common people would sleep on straw mats. It wasn’t until the 18th century that cotton manufacturing would introduce the futon to all social classes. Futons flourished in Japan, and became almost a requirement for bedding among all citizens. But when would the futon finally come to America? In fact, our discovery of futons was just about as quick as simple as the futon itself! In the 1970s, furniture design William Brouwer visited Japan, and was extremely fascinated with the efficiency and comfort of the Japanese futon. He was convinced that the portability and ease of futon mattresses would be perfect for Americans living in large cities with small apartments.
During its migration, several factors would change about the futon to accommodate Western style, including a higher mattress thickness, and the incorporation of different materials outside of cotton. Eventually, Americans would have a variety of futon styles to choose from, including combinations of innersprings, pocket coils, polyurethane foam, memory foam, wool and polyester as well as traditional cotton.
Also, since sofas and chairs were far more customary in American society, Brouwer invented a sofa frame that would reflect the same affordability and simplicity as the futon.
Of course, companies and manufacturers would take the concept of futons and market them as cheap furniture, but this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Futons can certainly tend to cost less than your average sofa bed or lounger, but the resilience and quality of both futons frames and mattresses are as high-end as anything you’ll find in a furniture store.
There you have it. A brief history of futons! Don’t you feel smarter now?