Why Mattresses Come With Warning Tags

If you’re in the United States and have ever looked at your bed mattress — with the sheets off, of course — you have very likely noticed a tag like the one above. In ominous terms, the tag warns you not to remove it; if you do, FBI agents will appear from an always-hovering helicopter, crash through your windows, and cart you off to prison on some island not even known to mapmakers.

No, not really. The tag, as seen above, clearly states that “the consumer” — you and me (unless you’re in the business of selling mattresses) — can remove the tag without repercussion. But that hasn’t changed the tag from becoming the subject of joke after joke. The tag has also been lampooned by Dilbert, Pee Wee Herman, and, as seen below, National Lampoon magazine itself. There’s even a commercial by Serta — a mattress company — where the removal of one of the tags lands a bunch of sheep in jail. (In fairness, the sheep are not the “consumer;” animals, typically, do not have money and are unable to purchase bedding.)

We shouldn’t be surprised that the label is regularly mocked — the warning seems so ridiculous. So, why is the tag there in the first place?

Today, there’s not a lot of reason to think that the insides of your mattress are anything other than what you bargained for. But that wasn’t always the case. Before springs and coils and memory foam, legit mattresses were filled with straw and other soft, cheap, and safe materials. Unfortunately, there were a lot of less-than-honest vendors. Mental Floss explains:

[In the early 20th century], mattresses were often constructed with some unsavory stuffing — horse hair, corn husks, food waste, old rags, newspaper, and whatever else a manufacturer could come by were regularly shoved inside. Consumers would never see the stuffing, so no harm, no foul, right? Not really. Some of this stuff harbored bacteria and household pests that gave unwary consumers a not-so-restful slumber.

The tag, originally, was designed to make manufacturers disclose what was in the mattress — the law required mattress makers to print what was inside on the outside. Manufacturers could lie but doing so would run the risk of discovery later on; a government inspector could obtain one of the mattresses, do a spot check, and if anything other than what was listed was inside, the manufacturer could be subject to fines and other penalties.

But there was a problem with the plan. Per Indivisible:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough: many did not actually change the contents of the mattresses. So the tags said that this was a mattress filled with dirty horse hair, old rags, food waste, newspapers, corncobs, and asbestos. And consumers, wisely, chose not to buy mattresses filled with trash. As a result, sometimes manufacturers, and sometimes retailers, would just rip the labels off, denying consumers the right to make informed decisions about what they wanted in their mattresses

So, Congress made it illegal to remove the tag “prior to the time any textile fiber product is sold and delivered to the ultimate consumer.” And, perhaps to protect themselves, manufacturers also printed the “do not remove” warning on the tag itself.

For some reason, though, the early mattress tags didn’t note that the end consumer could remove the tag, confusing generations of sleepers. But if you want to remove the one from your mattress, rest assured, you can do so with impunity. Just make sure the tag doesn’t claim that the mattress is stuffed with old corn husks — or worse — first.

Bonus fact: In Norway, if you have a cow, you better get that cow a mattress. Per a 2009 NPR report, “new rules went into effect in Norway aimed at easing the life of cows, who really like to lounge,” which, in effect, means each cow has to be given a mattress to lie on. The cow mattress, seen here, is just foam with a rubber top — nothing fancy — but it gets the job done. And apparently, it’s good for the dairy farmer, too. According to that NPR story, “it turns out that comfy cows give about 5 percent more milk.”

From the Archives: Children of the Box: The mattress that comes with every baby in Finland.

Related: A different type of cow mattress. Do not remove tag until after purchasing.