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Murphy In-a-Dor Beds

by Susan Saperstein and Peter Field

As the story goes, William Murphy lived in a one-room apartment in San Francisco around 1900 and wanted to invite friends over, including lady friends. If you have ever lived in a studio apartment, you know that the center of attention is the bed. Either Mr. Murphy, or his landlady, or just the morals of the time, deemed it scandalous for a woman to be in a man's bedroom. So Murphy, with the help of a blacksmith, designed a bed that could flip into a closet to hide it.

William L. Murphy (1876–1959), the son of a 49er, was born in the Gold Country of Columbia, California. Before he moved to San Francisco, his various jobs included breaking in horses, driving a stagecoach, and serving as sheriff. In San Francisco he lived in an apartment at 625 Bush Street at Burritt. For fans of The Maltese Falcon film, Burritt is the "spot [where] Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy."

Foldaway or foldup beds were not invented by Murphy. They had been around in various forms, and according to one source, Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere used them. Many of these beds morphed into other furniture pieces, folding into cabinets and armoires. The Sears and Roebuck catalogue of 1895 featured several varieties of folding beds.

When Murphy married his girlfriend, he borrowed money from her father to start his business making foldaway beds. He experimented with the design and developed a pivot for the bed, mounted by a hinge on the closet door. He patented this design as the Murphy In-A-Dor bed in 1918. These beds were described in their time as portal, revolving wall, and patent disappearing beds. After first contracting the Simmons Company to manufacture them and sell them through their outlets, Murphy eventually built his own factories.

Murphy beds became a popular trend as more people moved into cities and apartments. After the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, his invention became even more popular as they were incorporated into new buildings. In 1925 the Murphy Wall Bed Company left San Francisco and moved its corporate headquarters to New York City. By 1927 the company had factories in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In the 1930s the company also began producing small kitchenettes called Murphy Cabrinettes. In the 1920s and 1930s the demand peaked, with sales reaching over 100,000 units a year. However, during the Depression plants were closed, and in World War II steel rationing cut production. The post World War II housing boom further cut the company's business when people wanted to live in houses rather than apartments. One of their biggest competitors, the sofa bed, became popular in the 1940s. In 1989 an appellate court held that the term Murphy bed is no longer entitled to trademark protection because the public perceives it as a generic term for a bed that folds into a wall. Nevertheless, the company is still in business in Farmingdale, New York, outside of New York City. Although these beds were featured in early movie comedies where people are humorously folded inside when the bed suddenly closes, according to historian Gladys Hansen they also played a role in some of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake fatalities.

In the years since she retired as the Archivist of the San Francisco Public Library, Hansen has been researching the number of people who actually died, in contrast to the 478 officially listed at the time. In the course of her research, she found many references to people being caught in Murphy beds. As she says, it was something she was not looking for, but she kept running across references in stories and letters written at the time. These were references to beds violently moving during the earthquake and deaths being caused by suffocation and broken necks.

However, not all 1906 Murphy bed occupants met untimely deaths. In a letter to Westways Magazine, Don Forsyth wrote about his family:

My father was born in San Francisco in 1899. The family lived in a third-floor apartment. He and his two-year-old brother were in their bedroom when the 1906 quake occurred. My grandfather ran into the room to see about the boys, but he only saw my father. Then he heard a cry from behind the wall. My uncle had been on a Murphy bed, and the quake had caused it to fold up into the wall. My grandfather pulled the bed down, and there was his two-year-old, weeping but unhurt. My father had a repertoire of earthquake stories, but this remained his favorite.

Sources

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The Murphy Wall Bed Company had an office at the Crocker Building at Montgomery and Market in 1913.

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