The legacy of Chattanooga, TN’s Anna Safley Houston


Now Anna S. Houston’s collection is in this arts district building.

Table of Contents

Editor’s note: This article is part of the BiblioChatt series, in which we cover history topics using only resources from the Chattanooga Public Library. For this piece, we also used a book by Tom Williams, “Always Paddle Your Own Canoe,” which wasn’t available at the library. The archivist said this book was the best source of information for this topic, so we ordered it.

Anna Safley Houston has one of those stories so uncommon and bewitching that it’s almost hard to believe. And, sometimes, separating fact from folktale is essentially impossible but — as with most amazing adventures — that’s part of the allure.

By some accounts, Houston was a passionate, generous, independent, tough woman with a good sense of humor + kindness toward children.

By others, she was an eccentric con-artist who was suspect because she didn’t like children and often failed to pay her debts.

By most accounts, she was a self-educated, self-made innovator and entrepreneur, who had a singular vision that resulted in one of the most magnificent antique collections in the world. And she did it all during a time when a woman being a self-reliant businessperson was radical.

“Eccentric? Be thankful Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were eccentrics. People like Edison, Ford, and, yes, Anna Houston, are what made our country great. – Robert W. Miller, antique authority + collector, author of “The Fabulous Houston”

1947 fire copy cropped

This 1947 news article documents a fire at Anna’s home, which was more of a warehouse or “barn” for her collectibles. | Image from Chattanooga Public Library

Early timeline

  • April 27, 1876: Anna’s approximate birthdate. That makes her a Taurus — the bull. Cue “bull in the China shop” jokes.
  • 1885: Anna is nine years old and spends time making vases from broken glass.
  • 1889: Anna is 13, and she starts taking care of her 10 younger siblings when her mother dies.
  • 1890s: Anna turns 20 and starts a job as a women’s clothing buyer for Marshall Field in Chicago + Macy’s in New York. She also had a job as one of the Sutherland Sisters, a group of women who made money by washing their hair in public to advertise hair tonic.
  • 1897: Anna is 21 + gets married for the first time.
  • 1904: Anna, 28, settles in Chattanooga to start her collection.
  • 1950: Anna dies after a decade of ill health.
  • 1961: Anna’s collection gets a temporary museum in the Bluff View Art District.
  • 1968: Newspapers report the museum will be moved from 24 Bluff View to 201 High St., where it still exists.

Her work

By 1947, Anna was 70 years old and had collected 10,000 antique pitchers. A newspaper clipping from that time recounts how Anna and a “bucket brigade of women” from her neighborhood put out a fire that ultimately destroyed 500 pitchers.

This newspaper lead is a doozy, eh?👇

“The savage god of fire struck a low blow yesterday morning in attempting to devour the fabulous collection of antique pitchers to which Mrs. Anna S. Houston of Wentworth Road in East Ridge has devoted her life.”

The article goes on to describe a feat that today seems nearly insurmountable putting out a house fire with pails of water.

“My first impulse was to throw myself into the middle of it. I thought that if the pitchers were gone, I may as well go with them.” – Anna Safley Houston, 1947

Instead, she ran into the yard, screaming for help. She + her neighbors used Anna’s own collectibles to fill with water to extinguish the fire. (Imagine doing this at all, then imagine doing it at 70 years old. 🤯)

Anna loved to travel, and she crossed the countryall 48 states + Canada and Cuba — to collect what she called “her pretties.”

When she was in her 60s, passersby regularly saw her trudging down McCallie Avenue with a bundle under her arm and another one hanging from the end of a long pole. To carry everything such a long distance, she’d set one bundle down and walk as far as she could while still keeping it in sight. Then she’d set down the ones she was carrying and go back to get the one she left behind. She repeated this the entire way.

The husbands

Anna had 9 or 10 husbands — the early records are unclear. And it doesn’t seem she focused much on the men she married. Some were thought to be marriages of convenience.

For example, she said she stayed married to one man because he was a plumber, and she needed a plumber.

After almost nearly every divorce, Anna had her maiden name restored. But after getting divorced from her ninth husband, she requested that her name be restored to Houston from her eighth marriage to James W. Houston. It’s not clear why she wanted to keep that name.

Her legacy

  • Anna collected more than pitchers, she collected everything.
  • Her friend + journalist Louise Fort estimated that Anna had as many as 50 different collections, from stamps and coins to antique furniture and guns.
  • There were several failed attempts to get her items in a museum before it actually happened.
  • Members of the community helped make Anna’s museum dream a reality. This includes women who helped move Anna’s items out of her original warehouse to more suitable storage. They worked four days a week for two years on the task.
  • Another major player in making the museum happen was lawyer Blaine Buchanan, who was the first president of the museum and worked for many years to preserve the collection.
  • Ultimately, her legacy is one of grit and generosity because she wanted the city to benefit from her years of collecting.
  • The collection she left behind was dubbed the best in the world.

Other interesting tidbits

  • She gave birth to two children during her first marriage. Both children died.
  • Anna was often described as dressing in layers of raggedy clothes, but when she traveled to buy for her collection, she dressed up.
  • She put her collection before her health + food. She’d often go without eating if it meant she could buy something for it. She also just happened to show up at neighbors houses when breakfast was being served, and later in life, her friends always brought food for her and her beloved dog when they visited.
  • Anna guarded her store with a gun and started charging what amounted to admission for entrance, which was an enterprising step at that time.
  • She lived in what became East Ridge but also owned properties on McCallie Avenue for a time.

Happy 60th

The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts turns 60 in March. At this time, there aren’t special events scheduled, but museum leaders hope to host some throughout the year.

Also. 👇

47th Annual Houston Museum Antiques Show + Sale | Fri., Feb. 26-Sun., Feb. 28 | Feb. 26 + 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Feb. 28, 12-4 p.m. | Stratton Hall, 3146 Broad St. | $10 | This three-day event provides plenty of antique shopping.

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