Is It Really Illegal to Remove Your Mattress Tag?

iStock / cveltri
iStock / cveltri

At some point, most of us have heard that we’re not supposed to remove the tags from our mattresses, under penalty of law. Most of the tags even say something like "It is unlawful to remove this tag!" The tags and the bold act of tearing them off have become a kind of jokey cultural shorthand for oppressive, yet trivial, government regulation and rebellion against it. Jay Leno has joked that his mom is so law-abiding that she checks her tags once a month, and Woody Allen parodied the tags with a story about two drifters who break into a home and slash them off.

You can go ahead and cut the tag off without fear of jackbooted mattress police kicking in your door and hauling you off to the gulag, though. The tag's stern warning is there to protect you, the end user: it's the removal of the tag before the mattress gets to the person that’s going to sleep on it that’s illegal.

Why So Serious?

Take a look at your mattress tag and you’ll see that there’s a lot more on it than just the “don't remove me” warning. The purpose of the tag is to assure consumers that they’re buying a new, never-been-used product and to let them know exactly what’s inside it. The need for this protective label arose in the early 20th century, amid a boom in consumer protection regulations. At the time, 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 government tackled the problem by requiring mattress manufacturers to affix tags to their products that clearly defined their contents. Consumers could then make informed decisions and steer clear of mattresses stuffed with dangerous or gross materials. Listing the “ingredients” right on the mattress put the dirty rag guys at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace. So to get around the problem, having fulfilled their legal obligation to add the tag, some manufacturers simply tore it off before shipping to retailers. Elsewhere, salesmen ripped them off of slow-moving products to help sales.

The government countered with a new regulation. Tags now had to have the do-not-remove warning, and federal regulations made it unlawful 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” on them. “Any person violating this section,” the regulation continues, “shall be guilty of an unfair method of competition, and an unfair or deceptive act or practice, under the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

The move deterred dishonest mattress dealers, but also confused more than a few consumers, who dutifully left the tags on for fear of prosecution. In recent years, the feds and many state governments have eased the minds of law-abiding citizens by amending the mattress laws so the tags read “this tag shall not be removed except by the consumer.”

So, go ahead, tear that sucker off and sleep easy.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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