This widow of the South accumulated 9 husbands & 10,000 pieces of glass! Anna Safley Houston (1876-1951) single-handedly amassed thousands of pitchers, creamers, lamps, flasks, jugs, china, tea sets, platters and frilly art-glass baskets. Her collection of pitchers alone is thought to be the largest in the world. “Antique Annie,” as the native Alabaman was called behind her back, opened a millinery store in Chattanooga, TN in 1904. She had a brief stint as an antique dealer in the 1920’s but ended up losing it in the Great Depression. Houston continued collecting glass throughout her retail career.
So what makes Annie so fascinating, a town character to the locals? To start with, there are those 9 husbands. “She was something else…as nutty as a fruitcake,” says Tom Williams, a veteran Chattanooga advertising executive whose 1993 book, Always Paddle Your Own Canoe, remains the definitive work on Houston.
Anna attempted to settle down in Arkansas with Otto Ashbaugh on May 23, 1897, five years after leaving home to travel and perform with a group of entertainers who were paid to promote hair tonic. During her six-year marriage, Anna gave birth to two daughters who both died in infancy. She later claimed her first husband was a carouser who abandoned her—she tracked him down in Colorado and indeed found him in bed with another woman.
Only two months after her marriage in 1903 to E.R. Crisman, Anna reported Crisman was brutal and unbearable. She had a change of heart, however, when he persuaded her to move from Colorado to Chattanooga, promising the young businesswoman he would invest her money in high-interest loans to laborers. When after a few months in the city she found Crisman had instead used her money to invest in a furniture store, she recovered what was left and left Crisman, opening a ladies’ millinery store on 13th Street.
On Chattanooga’s Main and Market streets Anna built a dressmaking business, selling fine fabrics and fanciful hats. In 1909, she married her next husband, George Berry, who worked part time in Anna’s shop. The marriage ended in divorce two years later when Berry alleged he had discovered Anna had previously wed three times. He would not have married her had he known she was a chronic divorcee, he claimed.
Anna was clearly not averse to lying about her age when she married Oscar Moser in January, 1912. Moser was 27, a part time bookkeeper for Anna’s business and also a clerk at Chattanooga Bakery. Anna was likely between 36 and 38, rather than 30 as she claimed on their marriage certificate. The couple lived in a house on McCallie Avenue for six months before the marriage ended in divorce.
Anna married railroad brakeman Harold Creekmore in April, 1913. Thanks to this union, Anna enjoyed vouchers to travel in all 48 states as well as Canada, Cuba and Mexico. She claimed to have been alone in Juarez when gunfire from Pancho Villa and his gang terrorized the town. Still she traveled, presumably building her glassware collection. But after four years of riding the rails, Anna filed for divorce, claiming Creekmore had assaulted her.
Four days after her divorce from Creekmore in 1917, Anna married Richard Vallmore of Chattanooga. Vallmore promptly moved into Anna’s home on McCallie Avenue, but announced five months later he did not intend to live with Anna anymore. That was fine with Anna, who charged him with cruel and inhuman treatment, adding that Vallmore scratched her face and took her money.
The next year, Anna left the country for another one of her buying trips and wound up marrying Ernest Forfar during November in Winnipeg, Canada. Nothing is known of Forfar except that he failed to appear at his divorce proceeding only a year later, when a decree was granted on the grounds of abandonment.
Within a few months, Anna wed war veteran, James Houston, who at 26 years old was 18 to 20 years her junior. Having acquired several business interests, including houses rented to Chattanooga college students, Anna found the young plumber and handyman—who owned a truck capable of transporting antiques—especially attractive. This marriage endured for 16 years; at the end, Houston said he left Anna simply because he could never find a place to sleep at night—there was always a piece of antique furniture or some other collectible in his way.
In 1937 George Brown, 15 years her junior, became her ninth and last partner in marriage. Brown, who had lived in a veterans’ facility in Mountain Home and who suffered extreme shell shock, also had a severe drinking problem. When Anna divorced Brown four years later, she inexplicably took one of several former last names: Houston.
After the Depression, the bank foreclosed on Anna’s home. Instead of selling her precious glassware, she let the house go and built a ramshackle barn in which to live and store her glassware. When there was a fire in the barn in the late 1940s, those valuable pitchers were used – bucket brigade-fashion – to pour water on the flames, and most of her possessions were saved.
During the last 15 years of her life Anna lived in virtual poverty, sleeping on a cot with only her dog for a companion. Annie Houston died of malnutrition — her death certificate says obstructive jaundice— rather than sell a single piece out of her collection to pay for treatment. Ironic that the glassware was worth a mint, yet its owner died a pauper rather than subject herself to letting go of the only company she kept. It is an art collection that she literally gave her life to preserve.
When, shortly before her death, she went before the city commission to try to give her collections to the city, she was laughed out of the room by commissioners, who thought she was trying to give them a lot of junk. Ultimately, the childless collector did make legal arrangements to leave her 50+ collections in trust to the people of Chattanooga. Today, a century-old Victorian home perched high above the Tennessee River in Chattanooga’s vibrant Bluff View Art District houses Annie Houston’s world.
The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts collection is indeed so impressive that only 10% of the entire collection is shown at the museum, the rest being in the basement. There are literally millions of dollars of glass inside the walls of the museum. The rare glass collections include amberina, plated amberina, Pomona, peachblow, Burmese, cameo, Steuben, Tiffany, cranberry, satin, Quezal, Durand, sandwich and cut glass as well as more than 600 patterns of Early American pressed glass.
There is also a variety of lustre and a large collection of the rarest examples of Staffordshire, Mettlach steins, Rockingham-Bennington pottery, bottles and flasks, original Toby jugs, Meissen, and Rose Canton pieces, mostly in the Rose Medallion and Rose Mandarin patterns. The Houston museum features a room where the glassware hangs from the ceiling, much like it did in that barn.