Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II: The Man Who Changed How America Slept

“The Chief.”  The visionary of the first mass produced innerspring mattress.

Simmons Company: A Historical Timeline
Evolution of Simmons Company: Click on image to expand and view.

 

Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II, born 1871, was the eldest son of famous businessman Zalmon Gilbert Simmons of Kensosha, Wisconsin and also in 1871, Mr. Simmons founded the Northwestern Woven Wire Mattress Company, a small manufacturing business that made bed bases (incorporated in 1880 as The Simmons Manufacturing Company). 

 

Mr. Zalmon G. Simmons II, 1928
Mr. Zalmon G. Simmons II, 1928

 

Zalmon II had a dynamic personality, forward thinking future vision and outstanding leadership abilities. He took over the company in 1910 when his father died.  He was just 30 years old and at that time Simmons had one factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the annual sales was just $5 million. Zalmon II had a vision that Simmons would expand as the world’s first international bedding company and that the Simmons brand name would be synonymous for sleep.

Between 1917 and 1920, Zalmon Simmons, also known as “The Chief” embarked on an acquisition campaign that acquired regional bedding factories including Newark Springs of Newark, New Jersey, Rutgar & Meare of San Francisco, California and Hirsch & Spitz of Atlanta, Georgia. He also bought bedding five manufacturing companies in Canada, one in London, England and one in Paris, France.

In 1919 Simmons Company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and in 1923 Simmons Executive Office moved from Kenosha, Wisconsin to 230 Park Avenue in New York City, New York. Zalmon and his wife Frances bought a 164-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut and had constructed an opulent mansion with black marble floors and an interior  decorated by Elsie de Wolfe. The Simmons socialized with the rich and famous heirs and titans of oil, banking, sugar, railroads and industries and Greenwich, Connecticut was known as “the richest town per capita in the world” .

Simmons Company embarked on an aggressive international advertising campaign prepared by the Charles Daniel Frey Company of Chicago where Simmons used many famous celebrities including inventors, explorers, politicians and elite to endorse Simmons products positioned as Built For Sleep. During this period the company grew its distribution network to over 65 warehouses in the United States and other exotic international offices and warehouses in locations including Alexandria, Egypt, Shanghai, China, Havana, Cuba, Manila, Philippines, Buenos Aires, Argentina. By 1930 Simmons had permanent factories in China, Argentina, and Cuba, had acquired two American textile mills making woven jacquards and twenty-two other subsidiary companies.

In 1921, the directors that had come into the organization from their acquisitions convinced “The Chief” that Simmons was missing out on the mattress portion of the market (at that time Simmons core business started with an iron processing steel plant that produced metals for bed frames, brass beds, woven wires, and other metal products). Simmons did not manufacture upholstered stuffed mattresses.

Simmons test marketed mattress products in a 1923 catalog where it featured a range of mattress products including Red Label with cotton filling, Yellow Label with cotton and cellulose, Green Label and Blue Label and topping out with Purple Label which was a hand made pocket coil innerspring mattress where Simmons purchased the coils from a small supplier in Waukegan, Illinois. The Purple label sold for $39.95 which was ten times the price of a normal cotton mattress. The program was a success but “The Chief” insisted Simmons must learn to mass produce the pocket coil.

 

Simmons Purple Label

The “ventilated” pocket coil mattress was invented in 1900 by James Marshall of Canada. The idea was a more hygienic mattress. Marshall was never able to successfully build a business and died penniless and his patent had expired. There never was any connection between Marshall and Simmons.

Zalmon Simmons II rented a special workshop in Chicago, Illinois and sent Simmons best engineer John Franklin Gail and two assistants to leave the factory and invent an automated machine that would mass produce the pocket coil. It took them two years to accomplish this feat and in 1925 Simmons published a new catalog with all those various Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Purple labels and featuring Beautyrest, the world’s first mass produced innerspring upholstered mattress.

 

Zalmon G Simmons II
Zalmon G. Simmons II in a meeting after he had seen the first Beautyrest mattress.

 

Beautyrest sales grew at astonishing rates: 1925, 16,168 units; 1926, 79,053 units; 1927, 163,263 units; 1928, 334,984 units; 1929, 464, 214 units and even during the “Great Depression”,  Simmons had sold a combined 2,733,993 units and the company had begun transitioning from a core steel business to an upholstered mattress, boxspring and Hide-A-Bed business.

 

2500000-beautyrest

 

Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II attended St John’s School in Manilus, New York where he gained local fame as a baseball player. At the Kenosha, Wisconsin factory he developed an industrial baseball team where he invested $300,000 and the Simmons team was considered one of the best teams in the country, even playing an exposition series challenging the Chicago Cubs.

Zalmon II, like his father, was interested in industrial research and Simmons endowed two fellowships for six years with the Mellon Institute in Pittsburg conducting the first ever research in sleep.

Mr. Simmons had a passionate hobby in yachting and was also an ardent horticulturist and the last season before his death he had 3,000,000 iris bulbs in the gardens of his Greenwich estate.

Simmons retired as president in 1932 and served as Chairman of the Board; his son Grant was elected president.

Zalmon Gilbert Simmons II died aged 63 at Johns Hopkins University Hospital after undergoing intestinal surgery and his wife and two sons, Grant G. and Zalmon III were at his bedside.

 

CES Comments:

To set the record straight – Mr. Zalmon G. Simmons II was the magnificent visionary that  gave the world the first mass produced innerspring mattress and envisioned a global corporation and that Simmons would be synonymous with sleep. He inherited the reins of the mattress business when he was just 30 years old. His goals were phenomenal. Zalmon possessed an almost clairvoyant vision to discern the times. He had understood the new age of advertising and instantly had a flair towards it. His drive to make Simmons an international company– with factories in exotic places like Shanghai, Alexandria, Manila, Havana became a reality after steering the company just seven years. Zalmon perceived that a brilliant designed mattress with unusual high-tech individually pocketed springs would be a product consumers would buy at a premium price– and the Beautyrest mattress was born and would change the world. Zalmon  understood the importance of style and hired the world’s most advanced visionary designer of the era, Norman Bel Geddes, to create an outstanding Simmons portfolio of art deco Machine Age bedroom furniture. Zalmon perceived the importance of corporate citizenship and he led Simmons to fund the Mellon Institute sleep study– the first advanced clinical analysis of sleep ever conducted. Zalmon loved sports and was competitive–so  Simmons Company plants around the country always had a baseball team. The Kenosha team even played in a pre-season game against the Chicago Cubs.

Mr. Simmons was very patriotic and he wrote a 3-page letter to Secretary of War Lindley Garrison in 1915 regarding the sinking of The Lusitania. Simmons Company would later serve the war time request of President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for all large manufacturing companies to transition to arms production. Simmons stopped making Beautyrest mattress from 1941-1944 to dedicate all efforts to the war.

Quite often, when we think of Simmons Company, we may think of the tall, distinguishing looking old man in the “stove pipe” top hat. That would be Zalmon Gilbert Simmons, Sr ( 1830-1910) who established the Northwestern Woven Wire Mattress Company in 1877*– but after he was  President of a Kenosha Wisconsin bank, founded and managed the North-Western Telegraph Company (also having the insight to acquire right-of-ways of railroads across the country and then leased them for Western Union lines), and was President of the Rockford and Chicago Railroad. It is true that he did found the North Western Wire Mattress Company in 1877– but his involvement in the bedding industry was limited to his capital investment and executive oversight. In fact, Mr. Simmons received a patent for a woven wire mattress as payment for debt and this was the catalyst to venture into that industry. It was his son–Zalmon G. Simmons II that really reached for the stars!

 

Zalmon G. Simmons Sr.
Zalmon G. Simmons Sr.

 

Woven wire mattresses were manufactured by many companies in the United States and United Kingdom from about the middle 1800s up through the 1940s; this product was termed a mattress in the English definition of a “foundation” (taking from term “woven wire mattress” has an Arabic etymology from a root verb “ta-raha” meaning a bed area where pillows or cushions were “thrown down” for a sleeping area. It was borrowed into the early formative English language and that’s why one mattress definition can also be a base layer as in an engineering description. Woven wires were desirous because they were clear of bed bugs and dust mites and they were new. There were various designs of meshed wire fabric screens or metal links anchored by tacking of more sophisticated array of tensioned helical springs adjoined to wooden or metal perimeter frames. These woven wires were then inserted into a bed frame (like a four-post bed) and then served as the foundation or support layer for another mattress that was a cloth casing stuffed with cotton, hair, and a variety of materials and often topped off with a feather bed (which was a third layer).

 

ZG Simmons, Autograph

AUTOGRAPHED SIGNATURE OF ZALMON G. SIMMONS II

RELATED ARTICLES & LINKS OF INTEREST

Norman Bel Geddes Designs “Machine Age” Metal Bedroom for Simmons

Greenwich’s Outrageous Fortune (Vanity Fair, July 17, 2006)

Zalmon G Simmons II on Wikipedia (PDF)