Hideaway Beds: Push Here and Disappear
by Marjorie Dorfman

Did you ever wonder where on earth wall beds came from or why many of them are mysteriously named after some man named Murphy? Is he related to the person who started Murphy's law or was he from the other side of the family? Whatever the story, read on for some info and a laugh or two as well.

No matter how big or soft or warm your bed may be, you still have to get out of it.     Grace Slick

Whoever in the world gives beds, hide-aways or any other kind, a single thought? They just seem to be there every night when we go to sleep, whether in the form of a twin, bunk, water, double, king, queen or deposed prince. Whenever I think of hide-away beds, I recall that little girl of long ago, who unfolded the Castro convertible sofa bed all by her lonesome over and over again before a mesmerized television audience. She made it look so easy to open and close it and maybe it was. I never owned one and so I couldn’t say. Hide-away beds, however, are a fundamental part of my not so checkered but most embarrassing past and present.

In many cultures and for many centuries, the bed was considered the most important piece of furniture in the home. In ancient Egypt, it served as an elegant place to dine and entertain guests as well as to sleep. (Whatever did they do about cookie crumbs back then?) Goatskins filled with water were the first water beds, used in Persia more than 3,600 years ago. In the days of European castles and manor houses, there was nothing to stop little beasties from falling into the house and this became a real problem in the bedroom. The canopy bed (a bed topped by a sheet which is attached to the ends of four long posts) was designed to prevent unwanted guests, like dead wasps and rat droppings, from intruding into one’s sleeping space.

In today’s world, the "hide-away" bed evolved right along with urban and middle age sprawl. Whether we are speaking of the trundle, Murphy or Castro convertible sofa bed from the 1950s, the idea of anything secret or hidden appeals to almost everyone, be they lost or found, with or without a secret. The oldest of the three is the trundle, which comes from the word "truckle". Designed for children and servants of 16th century England to sleep upon, these beds served as the lower portion of the modern day trundle and could be shoved under another bed during the daytime. On the American frontier, the expression "sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite" refers to log cabin life where children slept in trundle beds next to their parents. Keeping the ropes or deerskin strips tight on the bed prevented the mattress from sagging onto the floor. Trundle beds with wheels to push them under bigger beds were also used in slave quarters on many American plantations.

The Murphy bed was the brainchild of William L. Murphy, (surprise!) who lived in California at the turn of the last century. He and his wife shared a one-room apartment which had a standard sized bed taking up most of the floor space. As a man who loved to entertain, Murphy began experimenting with a folding bed (electricity had already been discovered). He applied for his first patent in 1900 and the first folding beds were manufactured in San Francisco. In 1918, William Murphy (you just can’t keep a good man down) invented the pivot bed which pivoted on the doorjamb of a dressing closet and then lowered into a sleeping position.

Wall beds have come a long way since those early days and modern technology has made it possible for less complicated, more efficient methods for counter balancing the weight of the bed. Somewhere along the wall bed’s stony path, a man named Castro (no relation to Fidel) came up with the brilliant idea to convert a sofa into a bed. (After all, if Mr. Murphy could do it with a closet, why not?) The convertible sofa bed became so popular that it lives in some form or other in practically every home in America today. The Castro brand, however, having gone the way of all commercial flesh and Nick at Night re-runs, is no longer in existence.

What has all this got to do with my embarrassing and somewhat checkered past and present? Well, the Murphy bed and I go back about twenty-five years when I was an American student living and studying in Perugia, Italy. A boyfriend and I went on vacation to Venice, the city of red-hot lovers and steamy canals. The hotel’s exterior was very attractive and the rooms all overlooked the sort of blue Venetian waters. But alas, I was tired after our long and arduous train trip and wanted to take a nap before going out to explore the new city. My boyfriend went for a walk; I lowered the Murphy bed from the wall and plopped into it rather quickly. That’s when the plot to the story between Mr. Murphy and myself really began to thicken.

As soon as I jumped on the bed, I inadvertently activated a hidden spring. I say this with all certainty because the next thing I knew the bed folded back up into the wall with me scrunched in the middle of the mattress, like a hunk of baloney in a sandwich. I soon realized that the more I pulled, the less it moved. There was some kind of lever on the wall but I could not reach it from my most untenable position. When my boyfriend returned, it took him about ten minutes to stop laughing. Then he took pity upon me and helped me out of the stupid bed. I have never trusted sandwiches, closets, anyone named Murphy, or been the same since.

The trundle bed is much more a part of my present, which has proven to be just as annoying as my past. About two years ago, I purchased one at a local auction. It had black wrought-iron posters, two mattresses in good condition and was a very attractive piece of furniture. While not a steal, it was certainly a misdemeanor at the cost of two hundred dollars. The first time some friends came to stay overnight and I offered the trundle bed, I could not raise the lower mattress so that it could join the other as a double bed. The man who delivered the bed had shown me how to do it, indicating it was so easy that a child could do it. I surmised at that moment that I needed a child to help me because my poor friends, accommodating as they were, ended up sleeping on one mattress scrunched together like two sardines in a can!

I didn’t use the bed for a while, for I am not a glutton for punishment. I did, however, fear the worst when the time finally came. One summer I had a lot of company and there was no choice but to use the trundle bed. I put two guests in my upstairs guestroom and another stayed with me. The couple who always told me they were descended from frontier stock I selected to sleep in the sun room on the you-know-what. This time I found the lever that raised the lower mattress right away. (It even looked like I knew exactly what I was doing.) My two friends had a comfortable sleep and I was happy that at last I had finally mastered the secret to the operation of the trundle bed.

My happiness was, alas, short-lived. The next morning when everyone was ready to leave, I pushed the lever and it would not budge! Now I could get the lower mattress up but I couldn’t get it down. Every day I would try once or twice, but with no success. After a while, my cats slept on the bed and I began to use it as a sort of shop and drop. Finally, the lever worked, I closed the bed and tried not to think about for a while. Everything was fine until the following Thanksgiving.

I really didn’t think that anything new could happen with the trundle bed, but I was mistaken. I had set the room up for my guests before their arrival and had no trouble at all with that damn lever. When the time came to say good night, I was sure that everything would be alright. About an hour later there was an ardent knocking on my door. I was informed that the two mattresses had rolled apart, creating an unattractive and perhaps even perilous cavity between them. Some twine tied at both ends of the frame prevented further problems. Of course I didn’t tell them after they left that I couldn’t get the bed down again. The lever was stuck and it still is. I try to look on the bright side. Shop and drops are fine and I always know where to find the cats.

The moral of the story is that if you want to save space, don’t bother. Save face instead. Be happy with the space you have. It’s whatever it is for a reason, I think. But if you have some time on your hands, won’t you pay me a visit? I live in a lovely Pennsylvania town and can offer you a place to stay. Who knows? You may be the one to win fame and fortune as the indispensable soul who can move that damn lever and give me more space in my sunroom!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002