Murphy’s Law: Not All That Folds is a Murphy

This is a nice example of a turn-of-the-century chifferobe. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Austin Auction gallery photo)

Furniture can be quite cumbersome, especially in small quarters. Or even in big ones. In medieval times, the great room of an estate was a multifunction room, serving first as banquet hall then as recreation room. The banquet tables were merely planks placed across trestles and after the meal the whole assembly could quickly be dismantled when it was fun time after supper. Very convenient even when you have lots of space. When you don’t have lots of space, though, the convenience could be a critical factor in whether or not you could own another piece of furniture.

So the idea of folding furniture gained acceptance. Of course the military had been dealing with folding furniture for many centuries. The Romans even carried large wooden chairs called “curule” chairs that easily folded for transportation. And campaign beds have been a staple for officers since about the second officer was commissioned but examples of folding furniture used in regular fixed household locations appears to have come into use at a relatively early date.

The first folding beds designed for regular use appeared in the time of William and Mary, the late 17th century. These beds were not used by the royalty or the nobility, of course, but they didn’t exactly belong to peasants either, because to have the need for folding bed required the possession of a house. Where they came in especially handy was in the American colonies. Houses in the colonies often did not expand as quickly as the families expanded, so conservation of space was required.

One example of a type of folding bed was used throughout the 18th century. It was a type of rope bed because of the flexibility involved. The side rails were hinged a quarter to a third of the way out from the headboard and an extra set of legs supported the hinged area. The outer two-thirds or three-quarters of the bed could be folded back against the headboard and the wall during daytime when the bed was not in use. Sometimes those with canopies were designed so that the canopies folded down over the collapsed bed to conceal the underside of the bedding.

On the back of the chifferobe above, it has a fold down (not Murphy) bed. The cabinet is called a chifferobe bed and was the perfect single piece of furniture for a young man. (LiveAuctioneers.com/Austin Auction gallery photo)

And that little idea was the start of an entirely new concept in folding furniture—the idea of having a folding bed that looked like something other than a folded bed when in the storage position. But the consummation of the idea had to wait for the Industrial Age of the 19th century.

By the third quarter of the century, there were a variety of manufacturers—mostly in the East and Midwest—that specialized in folding beds. Among them were Hale & Kilburn Manufacturing in Philadelphia, maker of the “Champion Automatic Folding Bedstead,” A. H. Andrews & Co. of Chicago and M. Samuels & Co. of New York. These beds were enclosed in cabinets that exhibited the styles of the 1870s and 1880s, primarily Renaissance Revival and Eastlake.

Some of the cabinets looked like chests of drawers with mirrors. Others looked like wardrobes with either plain or mirrored fronts. Made mostly of solid walnut, the folding bedsteads of this era were not cheap. Convenience, combined with good cabinetry, had a steep price. In their 1880 catalog, one elaborate double bed model shown by Hale & Kilburn was decorated with extensive Renaissance carving and faced with fancy veneer. The basic bed was $170. Mirrors, an ebony finish and plush mattress were additional.

Was this the famous Murphy bed? No, the Murphy bed is a “Johnny-come-lately” in the folding bed market. William Murphy was born in South Carolina in 1876 and moved to California around the turn of the century. He lived in a typical one-room apartment of the period and the standard bed took up most of the space. Wanting to entertain in his new digs to aide in his search for a wife, Murphy experimented with folding beds and applied for his first patent around 1900, founding the Murphy Wall Bed Company in San Francisco to manufacture his new design. In 1918 he acquired a patent for a bed that pivoted on the door jamb of a closet and then lowered into sleeping position.

This bed has hinged siderails and folds into the mirrored cabinet behind it. While it is from around the turn of the century it is not a patented “Murphy” bed.

Popularity of the patent folding bed peaked during the Depression years of the 1920s and 1930s. Reduced circumstances forced many families to seek smaller dwelling spaces and folding beds were a natural for this application. The company moved its headquarters to New York in 1925 and renamed itself the Murphy Door Bed Company to acknowledge the famous door jamb pivot mechanism. World War II tolled the temporary death knell of the popular bed, as the scarcity of materials during the war years curtailed production and the G.I. Bill after the war allowed returning soldiers to acquire spacious, newly built houses that had none of the cramped style of their childhood Depression years.

But in the folding bed market, as with almost everything else, what goes around comes around and the pendulum swung the other way in the 1970s. The rise of condominiums gave impetus to the need for additional sleeping space without additional floor space and the Murphy Door Bed Company reacted with the introduction of custom cabinetry and wall units.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the folding bed has been synonymous with the name Murphy, so much so that in 1989 a court ruled that the term “Murphy bed” had become so widespread as to be considered a generic term. Now any manufacturer can call its folding bed a “murphy” and many do without fear of trademark violation.

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[Charlie Chaplin had some trouble with a folding bed in the 1916 silent movie “One A.M.“]

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Good article.

    I’m fascinated by the combination furniture of the 20s and 30s … the pool table / sofa / bathtub or the desk that turns into a wash stand.