Everyone can observe the peculiar effect of water on a sponge: upon drying, a sponge shrinks and stiffens; it swells and softens upon wetting. In this work, we aim to explain and model this behavior by using the Biot–Coussy poromechanical framework. We measure the volume and the bulk modulus of sponges at different water contents. Upon drying, the volume of the sponge decreases by more than half and its bulk modulus increases by almost two orders of magnitude. We develop a partially saturated microporomechanical model of the sponge undergoing finite transformations. The model compares well with the experimental data. We show that about half of the stiffening of the sponge upon drying is due to geometrical nonlinearities induced by a closing of the pores under the action of capillary pressure. The other half of the stiffening can be explained by the nonlinear elastic properties of the cellulose material itself.