“Under penalty of law, this tag must not be removed except by the consumer.”
As a child, I often wondered what would happen if I removed my mattress tag. Would a SWAT team break down my door and drag me away in handcuffs? Would pulling the tag off cause the mattress to explode like pulling the pin out of a grenade? Or would the mattress simply unravel? While comedians have gotten a lot of mileage out of the disaster scenarios, it turns out that the actual consequences are a lot less dramatic: a voided warranty and a total loss of resale value. But the importance of the tag is so much more dramatic.
How can it be so dramatic?
They’re the reason that your mattress and your pillow don’t make you sick while you sleep at night.
How? Where did the labels come from?
You may have noticed that this ominous warning is not the only text on the label. Under the warning, you can find a list of the materials used to fill the mattress. The true purpose of the law label is to provide a catalog of these materials. Today, mattresses are generally filled with a combination of cotton, wool, and polyester foam. However, in the early 1900s, mattresses and other furniture were filled with just about anything the manufacturer had lying around, including dirty horse hair, old rags, food waste, newspapers, corncobs, and even asbestos. Basically, mattresses were filled with trash, bacteria, and insects that could make you sick. And there was nothing any individual person could do about it.
But didn’t the market solve it?
No. The problem is that consumers can’t see what is inside a mattress or a pillow without destroying it. They only knew there was a problem when there was a problem. And without labels to tell them what was inside mattresses, consumers couldn’t make informed decisions and avoid corncobs and asbestos and choose clean materials. There was no incentive for mattress manufacturers to tell anyone what was in their products, because consumers were essentially forced to buy them anyway. So consumers acted through their government.
How did government help?
To protect consumers from purchasing furniture filled with potentially hazardous materials, the U.S. government enacted the Federal Trade Commission Act in 1914, which required furniture manufacturers to list all hidden contents in their products on attached tags. So manufacturers began listing the contents of the mattress on the tags.
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 (insofar as this is possible: this is so long before Tempur-Pedic and the 200 kinds of mattresses).
So, our government stepped back in, and made it a criminal offense for retailers to remove the tags “under penalty of law.” Otherwise, it turned out, unscrupulous salesmen would tear the tags off of slow-moving, low-quality mattresses to prevent consumers from acting with full knowledge of the contents of their mattresses.
“After shipment of a textile fiber product in commerce it shall be unlawful, except as provided in this subchapter, to remove or mutilate, or cause or participate in the removal or mutilation of, prior to the time any textile fiber product is sold and delivered to the ultimate consumer, any stamp, tag, label, or other identification required by this subchapter to be affixed to such textile fiber product, any person violating this section shall be guilty of an unfair method of competition, and an unfair or deceptive act or practice, under the Federal Trade Commission Act. “
At the end of this, manufacturers were required to label the contents of their mattresses so that consumers could make informed decisions. Retailers were not permitted to remove these labels and deny consumers their choice. And, with this help, the market could act properly: because consumers wouldn’t buy mattresses filled with trash anymore, retailers stopped stocking them and manufacturers stopped making them. And now we sleep in relative comfort. Once we choose a mattress, that is.
Ok, that is awesome. How did state governments help?
To calm the nerves of anxious law-abiding consumers, state governments added another clause, resulting in the warning found on almost every mattress and pillow produced today—“Under penalty of law, this label must not be removed except by consumers.”
Why keep the tag now? Isn’t the problem solved?
As the story of the retailers removing the tags shows, when we reduce these kinds of basic regulations, they stop working. While it’s unlikely that manufacturers would start using asbestos again, it’s hard to imagine that very inexpensive mattresses and pillows would stop carrying them once manufacturers figured out that they could use whatever they wanted as stuffing. Maybe it would just be old cotton, but it’s a slippery slope.
And because we’re so used to mattresses being clean and filled with health materials, no one would be looking for the problem, even if they didn’t see the hilarious label anymore. Let’s leave it where it is.
What about for me? Do I need to leave the label on?
No – you do not need to leave the label on.
While you probably won’t serve hard time for removing your mattress tag, there are benefits of keeping it on. Below the do-not-remove warning, you can find a Uniform Registry Number (URN). A URN is given to manufacturers when they register their business in a state. Each URN is then recorded in every state requiring registration; so two manufacturers cannot have the same URN. This allows government regulators to identify the company that manufactured a certain product, in the event the product is deemed hazardous.
Law labels are governed on a state-by-state basis and are currently required in 31 states. Without a law label that lists the Uniform Registry Number, manufacturers cannot sell their furniture products in many states and consumers cannot resell products without valid registration. It is important for consumers and manufacturers to check if their URN is valid in their state before selling furniture products, in order to avoid fines and products being recalled. It is also important for consumers to note that removing a law label can void your warranty.
In short, it is best to keep the law label intact to maintain your warranty or if you’re considering reselling your mattress. Though, if you ever get the urge to rip the tag off of your mattress, you can rest easy knowing you are still a law-abiding citizen. PeeWee Herman had it wrong, but he had a great Big Adventure.
So what’s the upshot?
Before those “do not remove” labels, our mattresses were filled with corn husks and asbestos. Until our government stepped in to help us. Twice.