The "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law" tags found on most mattresses have baffled and amused consumers for decades, but there's a very good reason for why they're there.

Although the tags are for the consumer's safety, the warning is actually levied at the mattress seller.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, government officials became concerned about the materials manufacturers were using to stuff mattresses. To cut costs, some manufacturers "recycled" old, used bedding materials and stuffed them into "new" mattresses. Therefore, the new mattresses were actually full of bacteria and sometimes even contained vermin or bug-infested stuffing.

"There was a particular fear that materials from old bedding, including bedding from hospitals, was being indiscriminately reused in new mattresses and thereby spreading such communicable diseases as smallpox and tuberculosis," historian Alan Axelrod writes in "America Out Loud."

To put an end to the unsanitary practice, federal and state regulators began requiring that all mattresses contain a tag listing the contents of the mattress and the materials used to make it. To make sure that manufacturers and retailers didn't try to remove the tags and sell the mattress as new if it contained recycled materials , the tags stated that they can't be removed under penalty of law.

"The penalty varies from state to state," Margaret Davis of the International Association of Bedding and Furniture Law Officials told Life's Little Mysteries. "The law label is a consumer information item as well as enforcement tool."

A federal law requires that any mattress containing used stuffing bear a label with that information, but it's up to each state to design that state's standardized tag and regulate mattress labeling. If state authorities discover that mattresses are being sold without the proper tags, the severity of the penalty can vary from a notice to cease removing the labels or to correct incorrect tags, to a citation and a fine of up to $1,000.

The warning caused puzzlement among consumers , who wondered why the government would care about what they did with the tags in the privacy of their homes. In the 1990s, in an effort to clear up the confusion, the tag's warning was officially changed to "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law Except by the Consumer." So snip off those pesky mattress tags.

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