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Who Was Murphy and Why Is There a Bed Named After Him?

Image credit: Valet Custom Cabinets & Closets

The Murphy Bed, also known as a wall bed, fold down bed or pull down bed, is a bed that’s hinged at one end so it can be folded up and stored vertically against a wall or in a closet. It’s useful in situations where floor space is at a premium, like studio apartments, dorm rooms, mobile homes and cruise ship cabins.

The bed is named, no surprise, after a guy named Murphy—William L. Murphy.

These kinds of beds had already been around in other forms for a while. Thomas Jefferson had his beds in Monticello hanging on ropes and hooks in the alcoves of the bedrooms, and Leonard Bailey received the first patent for a folding bed in 1899. Murphy’s innovation was at the bed’s point of folding. Using an old closet doorjamb and some door hinges, he built a pivot that allowed the bed to attach to a wall and fold up against it for easy storage.

The son of a gold-seeking 49er, Murphy worked a few different jobs around California before he came up with his invention. He broke in horses for a while, drove a stagecoach, and even served as sheriff of a little pioneer town. At the turn of the 20th century, he made his way to San Francisco and rented a tiny one-room apartment on Bush Street, which inspired his leap into the bed business.

Know When to Fold 'Em

The Murphy Bed Company says that Murphy’s standard bed took up most of the apartment’s floor space, which made having company a little difficult. Murphy wanted to entertain his friends at his home, so he began toying around with the folding bed idea.

As Gene Kolakowski, an executive at the company, told CBS News, though, there’s an alternate origin story where Murphy’s incentive was much greater. The version that Murphy’s descendants like to tell is that he designed the folding bed because he wanted to have a certain young lady over to his place, but the moral standards of the time deemed it inappropriate to have a woman in his bedroom. Desperate for some quality courting time with the woman, Murphy was inspired to find a way to instantly turn his bedroom into a more innocent living room.

Murphy eventually married that same girl and used a loan from her father to patent the “Murphy In-A-Dor Bed” and start his own company to make them. That same company continues to make them today, almost 100 years later. The beds aren’t as popular as they once were, though. Demand peaked in the early 1900s as manufacturing became the focus of the American economy and people flocked to jobs in urban areas. Disaster in the bed’s hometown caused a spike in sales, too.

After the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, the beds were placed in many new and rebuilt buildings to maximize space (according to Gladys Hansen, a curator at the Museum of the City of San Francisco, some of the beds already installed in the city folded up violently during the quake, injuring their occupants and killing at least one).

The Great Depression, the rationing of steel and other raw materials during WWII, and the post-war suburban housing boom all cut into the folding bed business, but the market is still big enough to support Murphy’s original company, plus a few competitors. In 1989 the courts ruled that the “Murphy bed” was no longer entitled to trademark protection because the public had come to see it as a generic term for beds that fold into walls, whether they were Murphy’s design or not.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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