I have been reading Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1850. This is the second volume in an eleven volume series devoted to women’s journals of the westward movement.
I am quite intrigued with the journal of Margaret Frink, who with her husband Ledyard decided to journey to California in 1850. They were a childless couple living a pleasant and prosperous life in Martinsville, Indiana. News of “the delightful climate and abundance of gold” in California gave them the notion to set out, although no one else they knew from their region was going.
The first order of business was to have a suitable wagon built for the journey. Margaret Frink goes into detail on the fitting out of the wagon:
The wagon was built expressly for the trip, it being built light, with everything planned for convenience. It was so arranged that, when closed up, it could be used as out bedroom. The bottom was divided off into little compartments or cupboards. After putting in our provisions and other baggage, a floor was constructed over all, on which out mattress was laid. We had an India-rubber mattress that could be filled with either air or water, making a very comfortable bed. During the day we could empty the air out, so that it took up but little room.
Who knew that folks had air mattresses and water beds in 1850? I didn’t. Margaret Frink was using an air mattress that had to be blown up by hand with air from human lungs, just like a camping trip from my youth, before they had electrical pumps built into air mattresses.
But it turns out that India rubber was all the rage in the early 19th century, when rubber started being used to make galoshes and other water-proof items. And when Charles Goodyear in the U.S. and Thomas Hancock in England simultaneously discovered vulcanization in 1843, the industry took off like a rocket, and all kinds of wonderful, flexible, water-proof items began appearing, including Margaret Frink’s India rubber air mattress.