It was the summer of 2007, and I was checking out apartments for my upcoming senior year of college. After being shown a handful of locations by a student rental service, I arrived at a decent-sized apartment that my realtor went on to describe thusly as we walked through the front door: “So this one is a little smaller than the others. It’s a studio space with a Murphy bed and—”
“Sold!!” I interrupted, in the loudest, most cartoonish way possible.
And so, my lifelong fascination with Murphy beds had reached its apex, and for nine whole months during my drunken college days, I had my very own Murphy bed. It was glorious.
It’s hard to say exactly where my fascination with these beds began, though it certainly was because of TV and movies. In the media, the Murphy bed has really only ever been portrayed in one of three ways:
- An unpredictable contraption with a mind of its own.
- A semi-ludicrous sexual prop, similar to a water bed.
- A matter of necessity for a space-deprived bachelor.
As an element of physical comedy, the Murphy bed has gone to battle with, to name but a few, the likes of Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, Popeye, Porky Pig, Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. In most cases, the novelty of a bed that came out of nowhere and hid into a wall was fantastic for sight gags, and the fact that it was spring-loaded made it a particularly formidable foe. For the record, though, this silly depiction of such a rather handy space-saver is more slander than essential truth. Still, there have been at least a few deaths associated with Murphy beds, making it impossible to completely laugh off the risk.
The Murphy bed has also been used in media as an object for sexual enticement, simply born out of the novelty of the unexpected presence of a bed. Now, while you might assume movie-dom’s most prolific one night stand-er, James Bond, must have used one in this manner — the ultimate spy screw gadget! — the only use 007 ever found for one was getting shot to death in a booby-trapped version (spoiler alert: He got better).
But you know who did, in real life, use the Murphy bed for sexy times? One William Lawrence Murphy, the man who invented the Murphy bed. According to historical research done by The Smithsonian’s Robyn Einhorn, the story goes that Murphy was an inventor who had the hots for an opera singer back in the late 19th century. In those days, it was improper to have an unwed lady in a man’s bedroom; luckily, though, Mr. Murphy lived in a one-room apartment. So like any industrious — and horny — man, he got to work figuring out a way to hide that pesky sex mattress. Thus, the inception of the Murphy bed, which he would go on to patent in 1911. (As for the opera singer, she and Murphy wed in the year 1900.)
Shortly after his patent, Murphy began The Murphy Wall Bed Company, selling this product as well as a few variations (such as the pivot bed, which pivoted on the door jamb of a closet, as demonstrated in classic fashion by Charlie Chaplin). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Murphy bed skyrocketed to success, not only because it was innovative, but because more and more people began moving into cities, and as ever, space was a factor in those tiny apartments. The Murphy bed was even seen as a selling point for apartments back then, since it was something of a status symbol.
But while the image of a Murphy bed as an invitation for sex may have been the portrayal most closely linked to its origins, its use as a space-saving necessity for single dudes was the depiction closest to reality. A fine example can be found in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which, when you’re not being distracted by Jessica Rabbit, also features Eddie Valiant’s awesome Murphy bed, hidden in his office wall.
The hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck private eye is also right in line with how most Murphy-bed-bachelors were portrayed on film — usually some kind of self-pitying misanthrope. The comedy duo Abbott and Costello was known to share a Murphy bed on occasion, as were The Three Stooges, which makes it easy to see how they went from a status symbol to a punchline — or worse, the symbol of a loser.
There was also the little matter of World War II. First, when the war hit, steel production was largely reserved for wartime needs. Second, with most bachelors going overseas to fight the Axis powers, both the supply and demand of Murphy beds took a hit. Worse yet, when the troops got back, the American economy boomed, the middle class grew and many people started to move out to the suburbs, where there wasn’t nearly as much need to save space.
While they never completely went away, Murphy beds wouldn’t become all that relevant again until pretty recently. Due to its space-saving benefits, it should come as no surprise that the Murphy bed is enjoying newfound popularity due to the current craze for tiny houses. But tiny-house-hunters aren’t the only ones who have rediscovered the genius of the Murphy bed: According to CBS News in 2010, Murphy beds have been reappearing in some high-end hotels like the St. Francis in San Francisco. I myself was delighted when, on a recent trip to Disney World, my resort hotel had a giant statue of Roger Rabbit just outside my room, and inside my room was a Murphy bed! (It truly is the most magical place on Earth.)
Personally, I’m thrilled that the Murphy bed is once again a relevant piece of furniture, even if I’m not quite sure why I love it so much. This journey into the history of the device did uncover a clue that may explain my fixation, though: In the Mel Brooks film Silent Movie, Brooks’ character checks into the aptly-named “Hotel Sleez,” which has a small sign outside reading: “Featuring Murphy Beds: Charming to the Unsophisticated.”
So perhaps I’m just unsophisticated enough to appreciate the many grungy charms of the Murphy bed. Sounds about right.