The Murphy bed is a space-saving furnishing for the ages. Fold-out wall beds have long captured our curiosity while helping us live large in small spaces.
Perfect for transforming spare guest bedrooms into dedicated work-from-home offices or carving out a flexible bedroom space in a camper conversion, Murphy beds have witnessed an uptick in popularity recently. They are befitting of all types of modern dwellings.
This isn’t the first time that wall beds were in high demand. They came into vogue more than a century ago before a Murphy bed was even called a Murphy bed. You might be familiar with a Murphy bed as a punchline in a slapstick comedy. While those first impressions could be a little hard to shake, modern wall beds have come a long way since its original clunky metal frames.
Today, Murphy beds are both functional and beautiful. They are also trendier than ever; especially for people living in smaller-than-normal apartments, according to Apartment Therapy. Chances are that you’ll be seeing more Murphy beds — but just how much to do you know about the space-saving furniture?
This article explores the evolution of the wall bed from its legendary beginnings to the stunning models on the market today. Here is the complete history of the Murphy bed.
Where Did the Murphy Bed Originate?
As the legend goes, a love interest prompted the invention of the wall bed. A lovesick inventor by the name of William Lawrence Murphy is credited for coming up with the idea for the fold-out bed around 1900 in San Francisco.
Murphy was in love with a young opera singer; however, in that era, it was considered deeply immodest to invite a woman to enter a gentleman’s bedroom. To circumnavigate this dilemma, he placed a full-size mattress on a metal frame that could be tucked into a closet when it wasn't in use. The wall bed allowed Murphy to transform his one-room apartment from a bedroom into a parlor where he could entertain the young singer.
And it worked — in more ways than one. The wall bed allowed one room to function as two, allowing the courtship to continue. The couple was later married.
This is a memorable story, and the most commonly attributed to the creation the of the Murphy bed, but this is not how the fold-out bed originated. The origins of the Murphy bed date back much earlier.,
Foldaway-style beds existed for hundreds of years before the invention of William Lawrence’s Murphy bed.
According to More Space Place, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had a version of a fold-out bed at his famed Monticello residence. In those days, the beds were suspended from ropes and hooked to the wall. That version didn’t catch on but the concept did.
By the late 1800s, foldaway beds were getting closer to what we envision today. In 1899, African-American inventor Leonard C. Bailey was issued a patent for his folding bed. His was a metal bed frame and mattress that folded in the center. The design was so effective that the army mass-produced it, making it popular among soldiers. Today, Bailey’s design is commonly thought of as the precursor to the sleeper sofa.
(Sarah E. Goode’s original patent design. Source: Google Patents)
Another African-American inventor, Sarah E. Goode, was the first to design and hold the patent for a folding cabinet bed. Her bed doubled as a writing desk when the bed was in the upright position, a function that is still incorporated in the design of many modern Murphy beds.
Born into slavery in 1850, Goode was one of the first African American women to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to Biography. She died in 1905, right around the time William Lawrence Murphy’s foldaway bed was gaining notoriety.
(A Piano Bed circa 1885. Source: The Brooklyn Museum)
The patented versions by Bailey and Goode, and the ropes and hooks at Monticello were not the only wall bed style designs. The Brooklyn Museum has a fascinating collection of convertible beds that includes piano beds dating back to 1885.
According to the Museum’s website, piano beds were a way to keep up with the Jones even if you didn’t have a lot of space or extra income. Parlors were popular at the time but space and money were in short supply.
“The consumer of this convertible piano-bed could, in a way, have his cake and eat it too--enjoying the propriety that a piano conferred on his parlor while gaining a reasonably comfortable sleeping unit for a large family living in limited space,” the Museum's website reads.
It’s a testament that the space-saving functionality of wall beds will never go out of style.
How the Murphy Bed Got Its Name
If you’ve ever wondered how the Murphy bed got its name, the answer may not surprise you now after hearing the romantic story of its invention. But William Lawrence Murphy didn’t even call his wall bed a Murphy bed.
He never trademarked the name “Murphy bed” at all. Murphy originally called his invention “The Disappearing Bed.” He patented his “In-A-Door” bed in 1908 before founding the Murphy Bed Company in 1911. Fun fact: it continued as a family run business for decades. Clark W. Murphy, grandson of the founder, became president of the company in 1983.
Over the years, Murphy’s wall bed design became the most popular. And though it has also been called a pull-out bed, hideaway bed, foldaway bed, or wall bed, it’s ultimately best known by the inventor’s moniker: The Murphy bed.
Today, the term “Murphy bed” is so commonly associated with foldaway beds that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the term “Murphy Bed” had entered common usage so thoroughly that it was no longer eligible for trademark protection as of 1989.
How Popular are Murphy Beds?
Murphy beds are popular today for the same reason they were a century ago: Their space-saving functionality.
National Museum of American History's Assistant Collections Manager Robyn J. Einhorn said the invention was a quick success "because of a combination of good timing, a quality product, and an inventive marketing strategy.”
Einhorn said that owning a Murphy Bed became a status symbol when the Murphy Bed Company relocated its headquarters across the country to New York City in 1925.
"People would move into these hotels in New York and they would have a suite which would include a Murphy bed, so they could pick up the bed and have a parlor, “she said.
Gene Kolakowski, who runs the Original Murphy Bed Company Farmingdale, Long Island, told CBS News in 2010 that the Murphy bed’s transformative nature has allowed it to stand the test of time.
"He [credited inventor William Lawrence Murphy] was a tinkerer, inventor, and he came up with the idea, 'If I could put the bed away then she can come into my living room," Kolakowski said. "And it's only a bedroom when she leaves — that was the concept, and that's what got him started."
Throughout the 1920s, newspaper advertisements for apartments used the Murphy bed as a selling point, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The Murphy Bed Company was producing more than 100,000 Murphy beds at this time.
Murphy beds dipped in popularity around the Great Depression and continued to wane until well after World War II even when steel and raw material rationing ended, according to More Space Place. It wasn’t until the economic downturn of the 1970s when people began moving into small living spaces when foldaway beds returned to the mainstream.
Everything old is new again. And the same goes for Murphy beds. Now they are considered back in vogue; especially for people living in square-foot starved apartments.
Murphy beds “continue to fill a need in living spaces of today, whether it is for small city apartments or suburban homes of empty nesters turning a college student's old bedroom into an office/guest space," Einhorn said.
Murphy Beds in Pop Culture
Murphy beds have been used as comic props in movies and television shows almost since its invention.
The earliest known film to feature a Murphy bed is the 1900 Biograph Company film A Bulletproof Bed, which was remade in 1903 by Edison Pictures as Subub Surprises the Burglar, according to Wikipedia' s pop culture guide.
Perhaps most famous instances of a Murphy bed appearing in pop culture was Charlie Chaplin’s “One A.M.” The 1916 film depicted a five-minute-long struggle between Chaplin and the Murphy bed, ending with both parties worse for the wear and Chaplin resigning himself to sleep in the bathtub.
Murphy beds have made appearances in The Three Stooges, The Great Muppet Capers, Who Frame Roger Rabbit, and even in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice.
Throughout the decades, Murphy beds have similarly been used in the media to incite laughter, often by causing injury or frustration, which may explain why people often associate Murphy beds with some sort of calamity.
And it is not just TV and film.
There is a 1958 song titled “The Murphy Bed” by Gallup & Goodhart. The lyrics don’t exactly bode well for the Murphy bed. One line, “The Murphy bed, that folds into the wall, the bed went up, O’Reilly went up and he never came down at all,” further perpetuated the myth that people could be swallowed whole by a man-eating wall bed.
The notion of a “man-eating” Murphy bed persisted well into the 21st century. In the popular video game The Sims, your Sim would die from being hit when trying to pull down the bed from the wall and the grim reaper will come for them.
Over the years, pop culture has been kinder to Murphy beds.
More recently, CBS’ 2011 hit show Two Broke Girls prominently featured a Murphy bed. Main character Caroline Channing installed the bed in a one-bedroom apartment she shared a roommate in Brooklyn, making the wall bed hipster-chic among its cult fanbase.
Has a Murphy Bed Ever Killed Anyone?
Pop culture references are often the first impression many get of a Murphy bed, which leads to this often-asked question. Google the term “Murphy bed” and among the top suggested related searches that pops up is, “Can a Murphy bed kill you?”
In short, yes. A Murphy bed could kill you. If not secured and used properly, there have been incidents of Murphy bed-related injuries and deaths.
The cases are few and far between. In 1982, the sad story of an intoxicated man being suffocated inside a closed Murphy bed made headlines. Two women were entrapped and suffocated by an improperly installed Murphy bed in 2005, and, in 2014, a 33-year-old Staten Island man’s death was allegedly caused by a defective Murphy bed. The press dubbed the beds “murderous” after the incident.
But as The New York Times Magazine writer Jody Rosen so elegantly stated in a 2018 piece about these freak accidents, “It was hardly an epidemic; statistically speaking, you were probably as likely to die by tripping over an ottoman or walking under a falling piano.”
Still, as Rosen noted, “there were enough of these mishaps to seize the imagination, fixing in popular consciousness the image of a bed that could snap you up in its jaws as you slept.”
According to Go Downsize, “When used properly, Murphy beds are not dangerous. They will not fold up against the wall when you are on top of the bed. When the frame is mounted properly on the wall it will not fold down on you either.”
Like any household product or appliance that is used incorrectly, it can result in injury, but as Rosen pointed out, death by Murphy bed is extremely unlikely.
Evolution of Murphy Bed Design
Murphy beds are safer and more stylish than ever. Early designs required springs or pistons to lift and lower the frame. The metal mechanisms were primitive, clunky, and sometimes dangerous, but the system achieved the goal: Allowing a mattress to fold up into a cutout space in the wall or cabinet with a hinge.
Modern designs come in several variations and can range in price for a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the materials and size. The majority of wall beds on the market today, however, still rely on this often-costly metal spring system to lift the bed.
Lori Wall Beds’ modern models don’t use cumbersome metal frames or springs at all. Instead of using the force of springs or pistons, the Lori Wall Bed can be lifted and lowered by hand using your and your lifting partner's strength.
Instead of using the force of springs or pistons, the Lori Wall Bed can be lifted and lowered by hand. And as a result of this new design, the company was able to pass that savings on to the customer. Models start at less than $800 compared to traditional Murphy or wall beds that can cost several thousands of dollars.
Each bed is made from cabinet-grade Baltic birch plywood, ensuring its stability and durability. The company offers a range of pre-finished Lori Wall Beds or an unfinished model that can be painted or stained to the color of your choosing.
Some things haven’t changed. Even back then, Murphy beds didn’t require a box spring. And most still don’t. The mattress instead rests on a platform and is secured by elastic straps or a metal bar to prevent sagging when it's in the closed position. Not having to purchase a box spring is another cost-saving advantage of a Murphy bed.
While the Murphy bed design has been improved since ropes and hooks suspended the frames at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello at the birth of the United States of America, the concept of this space-saving furniture has ultimately stood the test of time.