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House Beautiful

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

A while back, I told you about Ellen Cook who astounded Davenport's upper crust in 1882 by moving out of her mansion on the hill back to her childhood log cabin near Buffalo, Iowa.

Nor was the move her last bit of contrary behavior. While the rest of Davenport society was busy hanging dark drapes, tassels, textured wallpaper, overstuffed chairs and heavy mahogany furniture, in an attempt to go Victorian as fast as possible. Ellen hit upon a fresh approach to decorating. Since log walls and wallpaper did not mix, Ellen Cook decorated with people.

The kitchen, for instance, had a Southern Plantation theme, achieved by a number of black servants kept there: cooks, butlers, maids, gardeners. From the kitchen issued a constant supply of Southern-fried chicken, pork, breads of all kinds, cream, and eggs. Food was available whenever guests happened by.

Some of these guests, of course, came from the living room next door, where they themselves were part of the decoration. In the living room, several large Greek urns, bookshelves of classics ranging from Plato to Ruskin, and large tapestries covering the log walls created a temple-like stage in which Ellen held court. As Ellen's own interests shifted from Greek culture, to mysticism, to theosophy, to socialism, so did her human decorations. Poets might be replaced by Hungarian free thinkers who had been attracted to Davenport. They, in turn, might be replaced by young rebels from the Davenport Monist society, or a guru or two performing ancient Indian rituals in a haze of incense. As Ellen tired of each new fad, she simply redecorated.

Decorating with people turned out to be relatively fast and easy, and certainly cost-effective: a plate or two of fried chicken and corn bread from the kitchen kept people coming.

I'm thinking of trying it myself, if I can find a group of friends to match the wallpaper. Changing wallpaper is so difficult.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.