In her hit ballad “California King Bed,” Barbadian chanteuse Rihanna uses the titular piece of bedroom furniture as a symbol of the emotional distance between her and her lover. While once they slept “eye to eye, cheek to cheek,” she croons, it now feels as if there are “10,000 miles” between them.
To underscore the central metaphor, the song’s music video stars a truly massive custom-made bed. (At 18 feet wide, it’s 7 feet wider than the Great Bed of Ware—another giant sleeping structure immortalized by a poet.) The video bed is so big, it came rigged with special machinery to move the singer from one side to the other.
“California king bed,” with its steady progression of big, open vowels, is a better phrase for singing than “Eastern king bed,” which has a potentially nasal long e and crabbed, ugly er. But the Eastern king—also known as a regular old king—would have been the more appropriate thematic choice, as it’s four inches wider than its West Coast sibling. The Eastern king also has a greater surface area, by some 30 square inches—thus allowing even more room for the couple’s feelings of estrangement.* (It is, however, four inches shorter than the Cal king.)
Why does California even need its own king bed in the first place? According to most furniture websites, a man named David Bergeson from Concord, CA invented the bed in 1982 to accommodate his uncommonly long legs, which presumably dangled off the end of a regulation 6 ft. 7.5 in. standard king. In a particularly poignant variation of this anecdote, Bergeson not only had very long legs but was also plagued with stubby arms; thus, he “had trouble reaching for his wife during the night,” which would account for the otherwise puzzling loss of width when one goes from a standard king to a Cal king.
Unfortunately, the romantic tale of how Bergeson and his wife overcame the problem of his tyrannosaurus arms seems, like so much on the Internet, to be apocryphal. A thorough scouring of Google Books and the Google News archives turned up no hits—though it did reveal that the California king is a frequent co-star in racy romance novels, thus cementing its reputation as the sexiest of all standard bed sizes.
It turns out that whoever started the Bergeson rumor (and if you’re out there, Brow Beat wants to hear from you!) got the history backwards: The Cal king actually predates the standard king by several decades. According to Karin Mahoney, communications director of the International Sleep Products Association, it was developed as a super-sized mattress for Hollywood celebrities in the ’20s and ’30s—hence the glamorous, West Coast moniker. When the craze for big beds started spreading across the country after World War II, she explained, the industry created the national standard king dimensions, so chosen because the mattress would fit perfectly on top of two extra-long twin box springs.
Bonus Playlist: Other Pop Songs in Which Beds Are Used to Symbolize Feelings of Loss
“When you’re here I sleep lengthwise, and when you’re gone, I sleep diagonal in my bed.”
Death Cab for Cutie, “Your New Twin-Sized Bed”
“You look so defeated lying there in your new twin size bed
With a single pillow underneath your single head
I guess you decided that that old queen was more space than you would need
Now it’s in the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says it’s free
And I hope you have more luck with this than me.”
The Police, “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”
“Bed’s too big without you
Cold wind blows right through my open door
I can’t sleep with your memory
Dreaming dreams of what used to be”
Neil Young, “Out on the Weekend”
* Correction, Aug. 13: The original version of this post relied on some erroneous bed-size figures; numbers have been updated throughout to match the International Sleep Products Association’s measurements.