(b. 11 August 1904 near Palermo, Sicily, Italy; d. 24 August 1991 in Ocala, Florida), inventor of the Castro convertible sofa and founder of the Castro Convertible Corporation who was touted as “the man who ‘conquered space—living space, that is’” for inventing a sofa that could be turned into a bed.
Castro was fifteen years old in 1919 when he came to the United States from Sicily with his father, Carmello. After they were settled, they sent for Castro’s mother, a home-maker, and his only other sibling. Working for a short time in a New York City bank making $8 a week, Castro realized that he really wanted to be a craftsperson and work more with his hands, so he began working as an apprentice with a decorator-upholsterer in a Manhattan furniture shop. Although Castro had attended school in Italy, he never completed high school. In the United States he attended night school to learn English and later earned a diploma from the New York School of Interior Design.
While working as an apprentice, Castro repaired davenport sofas. Frustrated with trying to fix their complicated mechanisms, he became determined to build a beautiful sofa “a child could operate.” In 1931, after saving $400, Castro opened his own furniture shop in Manhattan and began working on his concept of a convertible sofa with a mechanism that could turn it into a bed. The timing was right for such an invention. The Great Depression had forced many families to remain in or move to apartment housing, so Castro’s invention, which turned the davenport into a full-size bed that folded into a sofa, allowed families more room.
While his fortunes in the furniture business were beginning to look bright, Castro met Theresa Barabas. After a three-year courtship, they married in 1941. The Castros had two children.
At the end of World War II the return of soldiers to civilian life led to an acute housing shortage. As families crowded into small, cramped apartments, every bit of space was critical. Castro’s invention, known popularly by that time as the Castro convertible, gave them the space they needed. However, were it not for Castro’s keen marketing sense, people might have dismissed his invention as a novelty. He made sure that the people who would benefit the most from his sofa design were aware of the product. In 1948 he became one of the first businesspeople to capitalize on the potential of television by buying local airtime on a New York City station to promote his sofa beds. To sell his invention, he enlisted the help of his daughter, who demonstrated that at the age of four she could open the sofa bed. Bernadette became nationally famous as the little girl who could open the sofa bed with the “feather lift mechanism.”
Castro insisted that his furniture should be functional, but not at the expense of beauty. He made sure that the sofas his company produced were of quality craftsmanship and were able to blend into any home. His success with furniture allowed him to move his business, which had grown to 500 employees, to suburban New Hyde Park, Long Island. In time his company added two factories to produce his patented sofa beds. By 1963 the company added four more factories to keep up with the demand for his product.
Castro’s first patent for his design was granted in 1956 for a spring cover for his sofa bed. Over the next several years, both by himself and with the help of coworkers, he patented several versions of his sofa beds, including one with an integrated television set in 1971. Castro’s pragmatism, marketing efforts, and determination stimulated growth within the Castro Convertible Corporation to forty-eight showrooms in twelve states, making him a millionaire. In 1963 the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans awarded him membership in its organization. He owned residences in Manhattan and on Long Island in New York and in Fort Lauderdale and Ocala in Florida.
In addition to running the Castro Convertible Corporation, Castro and his wife devoted themselves to nonprofit organizations and civic duties. The chair and a founder of a nonsectarian private school, the Golden Hills Academy in Ocala, Castro’s wife discussed this endeavor and others in an interview with the New York Times on 6 August 1969. Castro liked to open his home for charitable events. For example, in 1972 he held an auction in his thirty-room estate at Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, to benefit the Patients’ Service Program of the American Cancer Society. Castro received an honorary doctorate from Mercy College in Westchester, New York, the Knight of Malta in the Roman Catholic Church, and an honorary Green Beret for allowing paratroopers to use 1,000 acres of his ranch in Ocala for practice maneuvers.
Castro never really retired, but he moved to his ranch estate in Ocala. His daughter took over some of the administrative duties involved in running the company, but Castro regularly held business meetings with his company officers and inspected new designs at his ranch until his death. When he was not working on company business, Castro, who was athletic and distinguished-looking, focused on photography, one of his hobbies. He suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of eighty-seven. He is buried next to his son in the family mausoleum on the Ocala ranch. At the time of Castro’s death, Castro Convertible Corporation had sold over 5 million of its innovative sofa beds.
U.S. Patents 2,752, 613; 2,818, 584; 2,928, 106; 2,960, 648; 3,191, 198; and 3,608, 101, in the College Station Patent and Trademark Depository Library at Texas A & M University, contain information related to Castro’s ideas regarding the sofa bed. Additional biographical material is in the New York Times (22 Feb. 1964), (6 Aug. 1969), (18 June 1972), and (30 Oct. 1974). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Aug. 1991) and Time (9 Sept. 1991).
Brian B. Carpenter