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The Bridal Chamber

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see our American customs for what they really are. As an example, I give you Domingo Sarmiento, a young man in political exile from his native Argentina. In 1847, he decided to visit the United States, the inspiration of many such revolutionaries.

During his travels, Sarmiento took the obligatory steamboat trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, without which no visit to the United States was complete. As other visitors had been, he was awed by the scenery along the Mississippi, the workings of the steamboat itself, and the mix of passengers on board. But what fascinated him most was that grand stateroom on all the fancier steamboats called "the bridal chamber." Here, Sarmiento noted, "colored glass windows shed all the soft hues of the rainbow, rose-tinted lamps burn at night, and day and night the perfume of flowers and of burning aromatic essences sharpen the privilege tenants' appetite for pleasure. No Paris damasks were too costly for the gilded canopies veiling the new bride and groom."

So great was the lure of this "propaganda for marriage," Sarmiento noted, that American parents could hardly wait for their daughter's engagement to begin preparing her for the bridal chamber.

Alas, it was all a trap. Domingo Sarmiento could see all too clearly that the steamboat's grand and gaudy bridal suite was merely a cleverly disguised torture chamber from which few young women ever emerged to freedom. The American wife, as Sarmiento observed, "has said goodbye forever to the world whose pleasures she so long freely enjoyed. Henceforth, for life, the closed domestic asylum is her prison; roast beef stares her constantly in the face; teeming children are her constant torment, and an incivil husband, perspiring by day and snoring by night is her only solace."

To the Argentinean, love America seemed backwards and even unnatural. Where else, he asked, does the free butterfly come first, and then the domestic cocoon?

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.