Hammocks were first invented in the Caribbean basin by Native Americans. The key clue to that fact is the word itself, derived from the name of the hammock tree which had (and has) bark perfect for weaving into sleeping nets. Historians suggest that necessity was indeed the mother of the hammock’s invention. Net sleeping was a means of avoiding insects and animals that got after Islanders when they laid on the ground. So they innovated and then, for centuries, nothing much changed. Materials, sure, but the basic idea remained the basic idea until a few years back when, quite suddenly, a host of entrepreneurs seemed to independently conclude that it wasn’t enough. Now, everyone is trying to reinvent the hammock. But, why?
A person would be forgiven for thinking that the simple hammock was one of those rare objects that did not require improvement. But the hammock is currently being reinvented by every would-be American designer with a backyard. The result? Four-person hammock boats, hammocks for cats, camping hammocks that can be packed in and transformed into fully enclosed weatherproof cocoons, room-sized office hammocks, loft-like netted house hammocks, hammocks that look like hanging teardrop-shaped birdhouses and architectural hammocks with rigid frames. There’s even a “swinging pool” hammock designed that it essentially a hot tub in a tree.
“It was a really hot day when I set out making this heavy duty hammock with material left over from helping refit a buddy’s sailboat,” Benjamin Frederick, the inventor of the HydroHammock explains, recounting his reclined aha moment. “I thought, ‘How nice if I could fill it with water.’”
At first, he doubted the feasibility of his idea, but quickly realized given the material he was using it could likely hold at least two people. So why not one person, plus one person’s equivalent weight in water (about 20 gallons for his weight at the time)? He created the HydroHammock prototype, secured it to some Mango trees, and turned the hose on. He gets wistful thinking about that moment.
But it wasn’t just amazing for him. A total of 158 people found the idea awesome enough pledge to pledge an average of almost $500 in 2016 to make the HydroHammock a commercial reality. That’s proof of demand, but where the hell is it coming from? When did the hammock stop being enough?
It’s clear there has long been a desire to innovate sedentary leisure. But hammocks weren’t recognized as leisure gear until about the 1950s. The shift from utility to relaxation was likely pioneered by WWII sailors and soldiers returning from the Pacific theater where hammocks were often used for bunking. But by then, the outdoor chaise and webbed folding recliners were already the go-to for al fresco relaxation.
The hammock really didn’t start changing until they became popular for big wall rock climbers and the leave-no-trace camping movements in the sixties and seventies. From their innovations, hammocks became lighter and more durable. Materials changed. Ripstop nylon replaced netting.Removable tree-straps replaced nails.
But these woodsy innovators were catering to a small audience of friends. It wasn’t until the internet provided a way to share their ideas and riffing on the themes that new designs really started to push the limits and the capitalists started bringing weirdness to market. That event happened to coincide with the proliferation of boutique manufacturing facilities and “maker spaces” offering low overhead. Suddenly, evolving the hammock became a boon business. Nappers are now spoiled for choice.
“I feel Hammocks are becoming more popular because they represent freedom, relaxation, alone time or time with a good friend,” Frederick says. He offers a laundry list of reasons for the hammock’s modern appeal. These include being fed up with plastic chairs and uneven camp spots that make sleeping a hassle. But more to the point, he adds, “They are great props for photos. The more we see someone happy and relaxing the more we want to do the same.”
And, sure, that all sounds about right. But why not just make hammocks while the sun shines?
The answer may have to do with how leisure time is being commodified and sold. Since the coolest cooler first blew up on Kickstarter in 2014, crowdfunding platforms have been the go-to spot for lighthearted hardware companies looking to get out of the garage. Take Trent Johnson’s Treble Hammocks. The company is looking to fund a three-cornered sling designed to let lazy people loll about more freely, solving what might be called the “taco problem.” The specific pain points Johnson hopes to soothe are hyperextended knees and squeezed shoulders. For context, he’s a 300-pound dude on the other side of a few back surgeries.
Being from rural Utah, Johnson thought back to his days building bailing twine huts in the woods, a process where the rough orange twine is woven to create a net anchored by a close stand of trees. The structure is comfortable and strong enough for a kid sleep on. But after carting a ball of twine into the woods on a recent camping trip he found, while still comfortable, the huts don’t stand up to an adult. But it was the proof of concept he needed.
The Treble Hammock riffs on the twine hut by adding an additional point of contact to one side of the hammock and increasing the overall surface area. This design allows for a reclining position and allows the knees to bend for an ergonomic position.
Johnson, Frederick, and their hammock compatriots can do things like mess with the very nature of a hammock (add water! Add another anchor point!) because unlike champagne there is no governing body or brand to dictate what a hammock is. So anybody can mess with the design as long as it adheres to a couple of very important hammock concepts: it has to hang, and it has to be comfy as hell. And at least for Johnson, it is comfy as hell.
“Now I can set it up and four, five, six hours can go by and I’m still blissfully comfortable,” says Johnson. “I need to tell myself it’s time to get up and go do something now.”
And it’s Johnson’s hope that it will destroy many other’s productivity too. It likely will, considering he has everything that defines modern hammock innovation: a link to its woodsy past, a local boutique manufacturer willing to work with his high-tech 420 denier diamond ripstop polyester and a Kickstarter page.