I was walking around the Bluff View Art District and decided to stop in at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts. Along with beautiful collections of antique glass, there were several marriage certificates for museum founder, Anna Houston, on display. Can you tell me more about her?
Anna and her favorite husband, James W. Houston, who was 18 years her junior. They were married for 16 years before he reportedly left because he could not find a place to sit down admidst all the antiques. She married one more husband after James, but even after that divorce, she took the surname of Houston back, instead of her maiden name, Safley.
Anna Safley Houston, affectionately known as “Antique Annie” or “Miss Annie,” collected thousands of pieces of antique glass over the course of her life. Her collections of glass, china, and pottery are considered to be among the finest in the world. Her life – like her collections – is a remarkable one.
Born Anna May Safley in Arkansas in 1876, she was the oldest of 11 children, and from a young age, had to take care of her younger siblings when her mother prematurely passed. At age 15, she left home and worked a variety of jobs, including traveling as a buyer for Macy’s in New York and Marshall Fields in Chicago. For a stint, she also traveled with a group of ladies known as the Sutherland Sisters, who sold hair tonic at medicine shows by letting their hair down and washing it in public. Anna’s hair was naturally red, long, and beautiful, which drew a crowd—and also helped draw several of her husbands.
Anna was married and divorced nine times, though there is speculation that it could have been up to 13-15 times. Her second husband brought her to Chattanooga in 1904. After divorcing him, she opened a successful millinery shop downtown, selling fashionable hats, scarfs, and other high-end goods. In 1910, she began seriously collecting antique glass and furniture and opened Red Brick Dixie Antiques shop.
Over the next decade, she married and divorced several men. One notable marriage was to Harold Creekmore, a railroad brakeman, through whom she obtained vouchers to travel all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico, buying antiques. Anna was also in the real estate business and owned five properties that she rented out to local college students. Eventually though, she kicked out the renters because she needed more space to store her collections.
Anna was often seen with furniture or large sacks strapped to her back, lugging her latest purchases home. Sometimes she would carry a piece one block, set it down, go back and carry another piece another block, and repeat, until she made it home. She would travel miles like this, that is, until she met her favorite husband, James W. Houston, a local plumber who owned a truck. They were married for 16 years.
The Great Depression affected Anna’s antique shop and real estate ventures, but it did not keep her from continuing to purchase glass and other antiques. She refinanced her mortgages to pay for new pieces, until she lost all her property. She built a barn in the late 1930s with her own two hands, where she lived and housed her collections away from prying eyes.
She couldn’t bear to part with her “pretties,” except to someone who would appreciate them as much as she did. To antique admirers, she would undersell, almost giving away her treasures, but to anyone who showed up just to see the eccentric woman and her hoard, she would refuse entry.
Despite her priceless collections, she died penniless and destitute in 1951, because she refused to sell her antiques to cover the costs of basic necessities and the medical treatment that could have saved her life. She left her entire collection to a trust, earmarked for a museum for the people of Chattanooga.
Resident History Hound
“Mrs. Houston was a woman of single-minded purpose. Time after time, she talked of the museum which would one day exist for her treasures. She would, and did, sacrifice everything for it.”
– Mrs. Rodgers, friend of Anna Houston, quoted from Always Paddle Your Own Canoe: The Life, Legend and Legacy of Anna Safley Houston by Tom Williams
Photos Courtesy ofthe Houston Museum of Decorative Arts