The phrase Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back and its variants are used of anything that is speciously high-class in appearance, but is commonplace in reality.—Synonym: all fur coats and no knickers.
The respective meanings of Queen Anne and Mary Ann in this phrase were explained in Idiomatical and Slang Expressions, published in Dialect Notes: Publication of the American Dialect Society: Volume IV (Parts I-VII, 1913 to 1917) (New Haven, Connecticut: Published by the Society: Printed by The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company):
Mary Ann. Vile; low; mean; e.g. “That is a Mary Anne saloon.” [“A Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back.”]
Queen Anne. Beautiful: opposite of Mary Anne, q. v.
It seems [cf. quotation 7 below] that, in this phrase, Queen Anne alludes to the eclectic style of domestic architecture suggestive of the time of Queen Anne *, which was popular, especially in urban areas, from around 1860 to the end of the 19th century. This style was based on the domestic architecture of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but drew as well on motifs and ideas from numerous other sources.
* Anne (1665-1714) was Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 8th March 1702 to 1st May 1707, and Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1st May 1707 until her death.
These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase Queen Anne front and Mary Ann back that I have found:
1-: From The Daily Morning Astorian (Astoria, Oregon, USA) of Thursday 31st January 1889:
The East Oregonian correctly thinks $19 a ton for coal is a pretty stiff price.
The latest architectural caper is said to be a house with a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back.
The funeral of the late W. L. McEwen will be from Grace Episcopal church at 11 a. m. to-day.
2-: From the Cornish and Devon Post (Launceston, Cornwall, England) and Berrow’s Worcester Journal (Worcester, Worcestershire, England) of Saturday 11th May 1889:
A gentleman from the country says that he has no objection to a decent cottage, but that he has a strong antipathy to houses which are Queen Anne in front and Mary Anne at back.
3-: From one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column Pickings, published in The York Dispatch (York, Pennsylvania, USA) of Monday 13th May 1889:
An exchange says: Don’t be a clam; this is the season when the clam gets in the soup.
An exchange speaks of a new house Queen Anne style front, Mary Ann style back.
A great deal of society news these days consists of how the Spring dress is to be trimmed.
4-: From The Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas, USA) of Thursday 5th December 1889:
HAS NOT AN EYE FOR DIRT.
Why Some Housekeepers Leave Dust in the Corners and Spots on the Windows.
We talk often nowadays of the lack of thoroughness in all departments of education, and bemoan ourselves over the tendency to general smattering that we say is emblematic of the age in which we live, when everything must be done in a hurry if we would not be left behind in the race. All this we see and discuss, because these things meet the eye and are questions of public interest. Could not housekeepers, if they would, tell a similar tale concerning domestic matters that are spared comment because they are out of sight? Are not many houses, inside as well as externally, arranged, to quote the phrase by which a story writer recently described a modern cottage, with a “Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back?” Do not heavy draperies conceal dust, stained glass windows dim the light that might reveal neglected corners, and the æsthetic glories of the drawing room cast into the shade the untidy condition of the kitchen pantry.
5-: From The Daily Morning Astorian (Astoria, Oregon, USA) of Sunday 22nd December 1889:
’Tisn’t often that any one gets away with a real estate man, but the thing was done recently, in this city. One of the best of ’em was sitting in his office one afternoon, a short time ago, making out deeds, and figuring how soon he could build that new house with the Queen Anne front, and the Mary Anne back, when a man came in [&c.].
6-: From the transcript of a speech that one Major H. M. Robinson delivered during a banquet gathering the editors of all the religious newspapers of Chicago—transcript published in The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois, USA) of Saturday 28th December 1889:
Not that the Calvanistic [sic] edifice is uncertain, but that, under the new process of evolution, the Queen Anne front promises to have a Mary Ann back. Those stanch pillars, predestination, foreordination, election, etc., have furnished noble support to the structure, but just now they seem to be propping up a facade, and when one opens the front door, one steps at once into the back yard. That yard is a sort of gladiatorial arena, strewn with the bodies of elect infants, over which belligerent leaders war, but on which they tread as gingerly as a new-made Episcopal bishop, anxious that the audience shall not ‘get onto his high-water pants.’
7-: From The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Sunday 29th May 1892:
QUEEN ANNE FRONTS AND MARY ANNE BACKS.
Once upon a time it was my fortune to live across the way from a house that had had a Queen Anne front built onto its plain Mary Anne back. At that time I was not very familiar with legitimate Queen Anne architecture and I believed the new front on my neighbor’s house to be pure Queen Anne—because they told me so, and they had been so informed by their architect. I am the more inclined to believe that that front was Queen Anne because nowadays, any style, whether imitated in bedsteads, sideboards or houses, that cannot be otherwise accounted for, is known by the merest tyro—to say nothing of toadies—to be Queen Anne.
For years and years my neighbors had lived, wholesomely, happily and comfortably, in one of those big, bleak, angular and inartistic residences, with a gallery up stairs and down, a hall ditto, a wing, in which were located the servant’s rooms and cooking apartments. There was not a room that was not made sacred from its sweet associations with the births, deaths and marriages that are the peaceful progress and fate of every family. All the rooms had their gentle ghosts, or held like perfume in an incense bowl the fragrant memories of laughter and of tears. But the girls grew up into young ladyhood, the lads were in demand for germans and opera parties, the sturdy father prospered in his business and the upshot of it all was that the old house was moved back and æsthetic carpenters soldered on to it a gorgeous, gabled shingled anomaly that for purposes of identification was referred to as Queen Anne. The new front was mighty fine. It held a library, a suite of drawing-rooms, a reception room, a music-room, a dining-room, a breakfast-room, and a few accesssories [sic] in the way of cloakrooms and lavatories; so much, in fact, that it has always been a wonder to me why the architect did not also transmogrify and fresco the old original homestead, instead of tacking it on as a constant, plain, weatherboarded reminder of days that are dead.
Nothing in New Orleans was finer than that Queen Anne front, and often in the cool of the evening we used to promenade down the street just to admire its artistic facade and study in our ignorance its intricate curiosities of architecture. But as we walked home again we were invariably brought cheek by jowl, as it were, with the plain, old, dear and familiar two-story rear building and, somehow, as the result of a joke, we fell into the way of calling it the house with the Queen Anne front and the Mary Anne back.
But it took me a long while to get used to the incongruity. I did not find it easy to adjust the Queen Anne with the Mary Anne. As I passed from the gabled, æsthetic front to the plain, rain-beaten, weather-worn rear building now joined on to Queen Anne by a sort of mediæval lancet windowed link, I could not but be reminded of a corpse dressed only in front and who on resurrection day will be obliged to persistently back against the pearlly [sic] walls of the new Jerusalem in order to hide its deficiencies of costume for which, poor thing, it is not at all responsible.
Or else, when I took the street car and observed that gorgeous Queen Anne front bulging so importantly on the grand thoroughfare, when I heard people exclaiming over it and admiring it, I could not help for the life of me a sensation of discomfort akin to that experienced by the gentleman who complained that he could not live unless the toes of his recently amputated foot were properly straightened out. At last the dismembered limb was unearthed, it was found out the toe really needed straightening, the member was reburied and the ex-owner had no more trouble. And just so it seemed to me. I never could rest easy in the enjoyment of my neighbor’s grandeur until that Mary Anne back was renovated to a proper accordance with the Queen Anne front.
I think I wasted a great deal of time over this architectural incongruity before it occurred to me that a more serious fault, and far more irremediable, is to be found in people who are permanently afflicted with a sort of mental and moral disproportion that can be explained by saying they are closely alike to my neighbor’s house with the Queen Anne front and the Mary Anne back.
Who has not been amused to see a swell carriage at the front door of a swell residence, while an untidy, broken swill barrel, a disgrace to any neighborhood, stood at the back?
Who has not seen the mistress in a lace tea gown lolling on the porch of the Queen Anne front, while the slatternly, uncared-for poor relation worked in the ashes under the porch of the Mary Anne back?
Who has not seen the high art young ladies in tennis gowns playing on the lawn before the Queen Anne front, while their ragged lingerie flopped on the clothesline behind the dreary portals of the Mary Anne back.
Often we have known the hired, society hothouse flowers of the florist to come in at the Queen Anne front door, while the unpaid maker of ball-dresses, or the hungry beggar for a slice of bread, went unrewarded from the gate in the shadow of the Mary Anne rear.
Who has not heard of the chicken salad and champagne punch reception in the Queen Anne drawing-room, but who hears of the conjugal quarrel in the Mary Anne bedroom, or of the corn beef and yellow grits repasts that follow the reception in the Mary Anne breakfast-room.
I have heard of a Queen Anne front and Mary Anne back sort of a lady whose only tea gown is reserved for reception days, who only uses her nice table linen when company comes, who even covers up her toilet ornaments on all save her reception days.
But I have also heard of the Queen Anne front Christian who does all his praying in church; the Queen Anne front philanthropist who only gives when the gift is certain to be published; of the Queen Anne clergyman who only has time to be socially intimate with rich parishioners, and of the Queen Anne socialist who publishes a fine equality and practices a close exclusiveness and who snobbishly will have nothing to do with people who are not rich and fashionable.
Now and again there is put forth by some sharp publisher a book of the biographies of persons of the Queen Anne front and Mary Anne back turn of mind. Each individual writes his own sketch, anonymously of course, or if he does not he gets some friend or relative to do the slavering for him. The result is a series of remarkable superlatives of adulation. Not long since a lady who writes exhibited to me a gushing, biographical sketch of herself, cut from a magazine and pasted in her scrapbook, but which, unfortunately, I knew she had written herself.
Who has not heard of that jovial, beneficent employer who talks of his employes as his “people,” who loves them so dearly in public, but has it in for them for every small fault they commit, and is certain, in the end, in a sly, subtle way, to get even with them; who sets a spy over them and never forgives them if surprised into any manifestation of individuality or any expression of independence.
I have known a preacher to talk beautifully of the great loving heart that should make a man Christ-like, and I have known the same preacher to shut the door on a foolish, friendless girl gone wrong. I have known a philanthropist to spend six weeks getting other people to give money to a charity concern, yet send a little child asking bread empty-handed from his gate. I have seen a missionary to the South Sea islanders draw her petticoats away from the clean, guinea-blue gown of an old mammy, hobbling in one of our street cars. I have seen a rich toady, whose carriage was at the daily disposal of her rich minister’s wife, refuse 5 cents to an old woman who wanted it to go to the poorhouse.
On to the plain, modest, every-day-looking Mary Anne structures of daily life, how many people are there who build Queen Anne fronts of stucco and Swiss shingles, in which to house sham fashion, sham elegance, sham tastes, sham philanthropies, sham virtues and sham enterprises.
Of these the foremost are the people who scrimp, save and contrive to get away for the summer, not into the woods, nor on the sands where the salt waters are, but away, anywhere, to some fashionable hotel, full of the two types of society, the truly fashionable and the rich, and the people who wish to be thought truly fashionable and rich. The old, grinding life at home, lived patiently for the sake of this annual outing, is forgotten; they are now in occupancy of the Queen Anne front. All is dark and lights are out in that Mary Anne back where the ball dresses were dyed, the bonnets made over, the servants stood off and the bills disputed.
Mrs. Tomshoddy, who goes away for the summer, refers to her maid, her housegirl, her dining-room servant and her cook, but forgets to explain that all these are comprised in the one sad little slattern who sleeps in a closet and really does the work of five.
Mrs. Hiflyer intimately discusses her friends, the Flats, who share expenses with her at home, and no one guesses it is her way of saying she takes boarders.
Now the only harm in the Queen Anne front and the Mary Anne back is that people will laugh at the apparent incongruity and that the owner of this combination is likely to grow ashamed of the plainer side. My friends, whose house was the inspiration of this, never, I am happy to say, became disloyal to the old roof. The mother in the family used to say: “The old house—big, plain and easy-going, is what we were; the new part—fine, frescoed and all style and artificial manners, is what we are.”
In fact, I have known whole cities to live with a view to keeping the best foot forward. The front streets were cleaned; visitors were allowed to see only the show places. A great bluster was made of enterprise, hospitality and energy. But when visitors came they had to pay double price; immigrants were systematically crowded out; old grudges were visited on innocent victims; at the first hint of a hotel, a railroad, a factory, property was run up to absurdly fictitious values; in fact, the cozy, comfortable appearing Queen Anne front was all for show, and an ugly, human conflict still festered in the angular halls of the old half-ruined Mary Anne back, in which the town’s morals and the town’s real character were contained.
In modern American life everything tends to the facade. It is raised high over the roof—a pretense of factory carving and carpenter’s glueing that a good strong wind can easily blow down. Under its shadow may be sickliness, poverty, grimy, dingy rooms. The white marble carriage step does not always announce a clean kitchen. The clean swept sward on the front street does not always mean that the alleyway is clear of broken bottles or that the neighbors in the side streets have no cause to complain of everyday untidiness. A directoire gown has been known to be draped over a ragged or a soiled petticoat. Let us for truth’s sake be true to ourselves, and when we build Queen Anne fronts remove that suspicion of imitation fineness that is inevitably suggested by the Mary Anne back.