The path towards foam
A quick recap of how foam became mainstream in mattress manufacturing. Back in the day, a mattress meant springs—these were normally unpredictable, sometimes saggy and poke-y coils that were intended to form a responsive surface for your body weight.
Taking inspiration from the coils in chairs and other furniture, James Marshall introduced the concept of wrapped coils to mattresses at the very end of the nineteenth century. Since then, manufacturers have been continually experimenting with ways to keep coils aligned, functional, and responsive to sleepers.
But while an innerspring might give you support, they’re probably not so great as a sleeping surface in themselves. As a solution, the foundation layers of a mattress are overlaid with a comfort layer. When polyurethane (poly) foam became a ubiquitous material in the mid-twentieth century, foam toppers replaced cotton, wool, and other natural fibers as a way of matching the support of a mattress with a luxurious sleep experience.
In the past couple of decades, developments in foam have turned basic polyurethane into a variety of different density foams, designed for different body weights and sleeping preferences. This led to the birth of the first spring-foam hybrid mattress, where foam crept down from the comfort layer into the core. By the time memory foam entered the scene in the 1990s, foam tech had reached the point where springs could be removed altogether, giving a different kind of sleeping experience.
Other options (very quickly)
In case you weren’t aware, there is a third option in this debate. A handful of manufacturers are still producing mattresses without using any foam at all—though, you’ll likely be paying a little more for this kind of bespoke design.
Some brands still make an old-fashioned innerspring mattress with tufted cotton padding, which can then be paired with a traditional wool topper for a retro experience. Others make simple mattress pads from cotton (think futons or basic floor pads, worth trying out if you love very firm beds).
Alternatively, a growing number of manufacturers are focusing on organic or all-natural construction methods, leading to a rise in latex mattresses. Latex replicates foam as far as its ability to match the contours of your body, dispersing the pressure that can form on your shoulders, hips, and lower back depending on your sleeping position. It may even be better for regulating temperature, though some call out latex mattresses for their poor levels of motion transfer.