Last summer I took a temporary job as manager of the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts. No, I didn’t move to Houston! This Chattanooga, Tennessee museum contains Victorian art and antiques collected by Mrs. Anna Safley Houston.
When I began the job I was new to the museum. A perpetual open house visitor, I was very interested in the Victorian home that houses the collections. But over time, my interest focused on the collections. What at first seemed to be an old house filled with Victorian fru fru quickly became a fascinating window into the Victorian mind. I can attest from experience that a visit to this museum can send one scurrying to one’s parents’ basement to unearth treasures ranging from ceramic piano babies to marked milk glass.
The life of a collector
For sale in the museum is journalist Tom Williams’ biography Always Paddle Your Own Canoe: The Life, Legend and Legacy of Anna Safley Houston. The book’s title comes from her childhood autograph book in which a friend says: “Love many, trust few/And always paddle your own canoe.”
To say that this independent Victorian woman always paddled her own canoe is an understatement. Anna Safley Houston could fell the tree, mold it into a canoe, and fashion the oar before she ever launched the canoe.
She was born Anna May Safley in 1876, about the time that art glass made an appearance in American homes. The oldest of 11 children, she was put in charge of her siblings when her mother died. At age 15, tired of caring for her brothers and sisters, she set out on her own to see the world. Among her early jobs:
- Buyer for Marshall Field in Chicago
- Member of the travelling “Sullivan Sisters,” a troupe of women who groomed their hair in public to sell hair tonic
- Dress maker
- Antiques dealer
Never widowed, Anna Safley probably married nine or ten times. Her first marriage produced two children, both of whom died in infancy. During the second pregnancy, her husband left her and, when she asked her family for shelter, they declined because it was unseemly to harbor a pregnant woman with no husband. She never forgave the family for the slight: At her death she left nothing to her siblings and instead left everything to the museum that bears her name.
Anna moved to Chattanooga with her second husband, who failed to mention that he had a venereal disease until she had been infected and who eventually absconded with at least some of her money. In Chattanooga she married many men several years her junior, but James W. Houston seemed to have been her favorite. He lasted 16 years, and she retained his name when she divorced subsequent husbands.
After the Great Depression, Anna went without food and healthcare to avoid selling anything from her collection. To evade creditors, she built by her own hand a barn-like warehouse where she lived with her dog and her glittering glass treasures. At her death in 1951, the warehouse contained over 50 collections, including corner cupboards, sugar chests, guns, ceramics, and glass. In the glass collection were 15,000 pitchers. Today, the glass housed in the Houston Museum is considered one of the finest collections in the world.
The mystery that was Mrs. Houston
In Paddle Your Own Canoe, Williams mentions several mysteries surrounding Mrs. Houston. Was she a beautiful clotheshorse or a disheveled street person? Where did she get the money to buy her collections and how did she hang on to them? And why did she take on all those husbands?
Legend has it that Anna walked the streets of Chattanooga looking like a modern-day bag lady, but that she dressed to the nines for the antique buying trips that took her to every state in the union as well as Mexico and Canada. As for funds for her purchases, that mystery is likely to remain. There is no evidence that her husbands brought money to the marriages. Her early purchases were from country folk who may not have known the value of their property, and wealthy customers could have bankrolled some of her purchases. She occasionally refinanced her millinery business and her rental properties. And perhaps there was a little bit of cheating going on as well. For example, she often had purchases shipped COD and then haggled over the price with the shipping company.
The husband question is another mystery not easily solved. With Mr. Houston she expressed an interest in trying to have children, and that may have been a factor in some early marriages. Some theories:
- As a successful business woman and collector, Anna may have been trying to get one marriage right in order to satisfy her urge to be successful at everything.
- Marriage represents family, connection, stability, and security. Anna seemed to be lacking all those things, and marriage may have been an expression of her need for human connection.
- Anna may have been a “marriage addict”: Marriage may have been an extension of her obsessive urge to collect.
- Later marriages may have failed because older couples are often less adaptable than younger couples.
- Sometimes people marry more often because they are asked more often. Anna may have accepted every proposal that came her way.
The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts
If being a compulsive collector was Anna’s flaw, it was certainly Chattanooga’s gain. The museum on High Street in the thriving Museum Hill neighborhood is well worth a tour. A visit to the museum website at www.thehoustonmuseum.org is fascinating, but a docent-led tour of the collection can make an art-glass aficionado of anyone.