Who invented the sleeper sofa?

Rep.-elect Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, checks out a Murphy bed while apartment hunting on Capitol Hill.
Rep.-elect Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, checks out a Murphy bed while apartment hunting on Capitol Hill.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Ever stayed in a hotel suite and flipped a coin to see who would stay on the sleeper sofa for the night? No one wanted to be the loser because the pullout mattress was usually uncomfortable. Thankfully, that's changing.

The idea of a convertible bed isn't a new one. Ancient Egyptians fashioned daybeds by lashing palms together [source: Design Boom]. Thomas Jefferson recessed beds into alcoves at the home he called Monticello; some surmise he used a rope and pulley system to draw the beds upright when not in use [source: Thomas Jefferson Foundation]. George Washington's Mount Vernon guests slept on a settee that could morph into a bed [source: George Washington Wired].

In 1885, a double-duty bed made its first appearance in the U.S. patent office. Sarah E. Goode, a former slave, became the first black woman to receive a patent when she designed a folding bed that could fit into a writing desk. The idea was prompted during conversations with the apartment-dwelling customers of her Chicago furniture store who lamented about a lack of space-saving furniture. Although there's no evidence the design was mass-produced, it does appear to be the forerunner of modern folding beds [source: California State Polytechnic University].

Today, there are dozens of patents for sofa beds, but most have basic features in common, including a folding mattress and frame. Traditional sofa bed mattresses extend to 72 inches (1.8 meters) in length, and the most common sofa bed sizes correspond with standard mattress sizes, such as queen and full. Custom sofa bed sizes can be larger (king) or smaller (twin).

As with most well-accepted designs, sofa beds come in several variations, from inexpensive futons with fabric-covered mattresses to expandable chaise lounges.

History of the Sleeper Sofa

The late 1800s represented a boom in sleep innovations. Not long after Goode patented the "sleeper desk," an African-American inventor named Leonard C. Bailey received a patent for a folding bed. The 1899 patent diagram depicted a metal bed frame and mattress that folded in the center. Each lengthwise end of the bed raised to meet in the middle, much like a single piece of bread folded into a sandwich. The invention came to the attention of the U.S. Army Medical Board and the mass-produced design found particular favor with soldiers and campers [source: Our Weekly].

By 1908, William Murphy had invented the pivot bed. His one-room San Francisco apartment didn't leave much room for entertaining guests, so Murphy devised a hinging mechanism attached to the head of the bed that would flip it into a wall cavity when not in use. As of 2013, Murphy Bed Co. still manufactured Murphy beds [source: Soniak].

The grandfather of modern sleeper sofas was the product of the American dream. Bernard Castro was an Italian who immigrated to the U.S. in 1919. After spending much of his spare time in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art studying the furniture on display, Castro began building his own brand of sleeper sofas in 1931. His designs were unique because the couches didn't look as if they contained a pullout mattress and frame. They retained the aesthetic appeal of high-end furniture [source: Caceres].

The family sold the company in 1993 after Castro's death, but daughter Bernadette regained ownership in 2008 and focused on marketing a convertible ottoman [source: Castro Convertibles, Medina].

Although the folding mechanisms continue to be tweaked by modern manufacturers, today's sleeper sofas aren't so different from those used mid-century -- with the exception of increasingly comfortable mattresses. Many of the extras once available only on traditional mattresses are now drawing consumers to sleeper sofas, including memory foam [source: Solomon].

Author's Note

Sofa sleepers have come a long way, especially when it comes to ease of extension. I remember staying with family friends as a child, and being the "lucky" one to sleep on the pullout sofa. The sofa sleeper prep I witnessed that night went something like this: Move the coffee table. Remove cushions and pillows from sofa. Pull on bed frame recessed in sofa. Grasp lower back in pain. Enlist help. Pull on recessed bed again. Wrestle with folding mechanism. Successfully extend sofa bed.

Thankfully, that's not really the case anymore. My last encounter with a sofa sleeper was a breeze -- acquiescing hinges, comfy mattress -- and no complaints.

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  • Caceres, Melissa. "Iconic South Florida Furniture Company Castro Convertibles Returns." Sun-Sentinel. July 6, 2012. (Feb. 13, 2012) http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-07-06/business/fl-castro-convertibles-returns-20120706_1_bernard-castro-sofa-krause-furniture
  • California State Polytechnic University. "Sarah E. Goode." (Feb. 10, 2013) http://www.csupomona.edu/~plin/inventors/goode.html
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  • Soniak, Matt. "Who Was Murphy and Why is There a Bed Named After Him?" Mental Floss. (Feb. 10, 2013) http://mentalfloss.com/article/30266/who-was-murphy-and-why-there-bed-named-after-him
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