By Sarah Braunstein
Photograph by Jacob Pitcher
Illustrations courtesy of Anne Taintor Inc.
An attitude is a terrible thing to waste. The life and work of Anne Taintor.
Why yes, I am that kind of girl
Do you call yourself a feminist? And yet long a little wistfully for the days when women looked like Joan on Mad Men? Tired of earnest Hallmark cards? Think the only way to get through life is to embrace irreverence?
If so, theres a good chance you have an Anne Taintor magnet stuck on your fridge. Or maybe you own an Anne Taintor luggage tag, mug, notepad, coaster set, or (best yet) flask. Or youve received one of her greeting cards from one of your irreverent feminist friends.
Though often quoted and copied (there are plenty of impersonators out there), Anne Taintor is the originator of the snarky vintage product. Sold at boutiques and card shops all over the world, Anne Taintors goods feature images of traditional American womencoiffed, starched, impossibly cheerful models from the 40s, 50s, and 60sjuxtaposed with cheeky captions suggesting their real inner thoughts. A woman in formal wear, a dark-haired Betty Draper, holds up a platter of home-cooked food. Her frozen smile dazzles. The caption beneath reads: The secret ingredient is resentment. Another woman waves a game-show hand at an open refrigerator. Caption: Make your own damn dinner.
Taintor isnt the perfectly coiffed, false-eyelash type. Far from it. One has a hard time imagining her slaving away in a ruffled apron. She is strikingly modest, self-effacing, and funny. Shes also a Mainer. For 25 years, this Lewiston-born-and-raised artist has been making smart people smile. And after more than a decade in New Mexico, she has returned to her home state.
Someone was going to have to set a bad example
In Lewiston in the 60s, Taintor lay awake at night worrying about becoming a woman. She feared growing up, suspected she would fail at a conventional life but couldnt imagine an alternative path. As far as I could see, my options as an adult woman were limited. I could be a housewife, a teacher, or a nun. Or a movie star. And I didnt think Id be much good at any of those roles.
After high school, Taintor went to Harvard University, where she earned a degree in visual and environmental studies in 1977. A few years later, she found herself back in Maine, now a single mother struggling to make ends meetwaitressing, creating visual art when she could (I was making my little things, she says, with characteristic humility), and longing for more time with her daughter.
Taintor credits the Maine Festivala performance and craft venueas the launching pad for her business. She had sold her work at retail craft fairs before, but at the Maine Festival she found an audience positively hungry for her merchandise. Customers clamored for her goods. She recalls her mistaken belief that her humor would be appreciated only by those of her generation. Turns out you dont need to be raised by Donna Reed to appreciate Taintors sly reconception of classic images.
After that years Maine Festival, Taintor took the plunge and quit her waitressing job. Now, 25 years later, she boasts a wide and ever-growing product line, a support staff, and a thriving seven-figure business. Her products are sold at more than 3,000 stores in 25 countries.
Lets ignore our mothers advice
But wait. Were forgetting the middle. This isnt one of those stories about a magic transformation; its a story about work. About perseverance. About that fine line between forbearance and surrender. Its about staring doubt in the face and then doing it anyway. For Taintor, it wasnt always a smooth ride.
Five years into the business, for example, while she was exploring ways to expand, Taintor turned for advice to a mentorship organization where retired executives shared wisdom with entrepreneurs. She recalls their message: They told me, This is foolish; this is impossible; this will never work. Heartbroken, she called a friend (now her husband) who said, Anne! But youve already been in business five years!
It was the moment when she realized the importance of believing in herself. It was the moment when she learned to ignore naysayers. Its now the simple but critical message she offers to would-be entrepreneurs.
You also have to want it. Bad. Work harder for yourself than for anybody else, she says. Early in her career, she felt enormous longing to spend time with her young daughter. A jobany jobwould take her away from her child for long stretches at a time. Suddenly, the stakes were high. Failing wasnt an option. If I didnt meet every challenge, I knew Id have to get a job. And when I had a job, I never saw my daughter A challenge would come up and Id say, Oh no! I cant! But then Id do it.
Plus, she adds. I was lucky.
This, it turns out, is another hallmark of Taintors personality: an unaffected humility and directness. You cant not like her. You cant help but be struck by her warmth and candor. She seems at once exhilarated by her success and slightly, charmingly startled by it. And somehow this dimension of her character comes across in her work. A deep knowingness. A sense that were all inhabiting this crazy world together. When youre in the store and you reach for a magnet or a greeting card or pill case, it feels like youre sharing a joke together, you and Anne.
She had not yet decided whether to use her power for good or for evil
Recently, to celebrate the companys 25th anniversary, Taintor launched a caption contest on her website, inviting fans to submit their own subversive, irreverent captions. The contest is a forum where edgier, boundary-pushing taglines flourish, helping Taintor stay true to her roots.
Her personal favorite? A fresh-faced boy smiles at his beaming, apron-clad mother. Hes holding his metal lunch box (containing, no doubt, homemade goodies she slaved for hours to make). Its an image that epitomizes mid-twentieth-century domestic order. Taintor selected this winning caption, submitted by Anne Gilot: Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a pimp.
If by happy you mean trapped with no means of escape ? Then yes, Im happy
For more than a decade Taintor lived in rural New Mexico, in the heart of Georgia OKeeffe country. Her companys main office is in Brooklyn. Shes got staff in California. These days, Anne Taintor can live and work anywhere. Shes chosen to return to Maine, and she moved to Portlands Stroudwater neighborhood in June. We bought a historic house with no closets, no light fixtures, and almost no heat
but lots of charm, she says. Although some of her favorite childhood haunts dont exist anymore (she laments the closing of Raouls Roadside Attraction), her best friends and family are still here. Shes thrilled to live in a little city again, to return to the state that nurtured her early in her career, and to take part in the demographically richer and more multifaceted Maine life. Shes impressed by how much more diverse the states population has becomeespecially in Lewiston and Portlandin the years since shes been away.
Another lure? Maine yard sales, naturally, where she snags vintage magazines containing the images at the heart of her work. Maine is such a great source for old magazines, she says. I got my first stack of old Ladies Home Journals at a yard sale in Willard Square in South Portland. You just cant find old magazines in New Mexicosince it was settled so much later and the people werent English speaking. Yes, Ill go to eBay, but Im old-fashioned: I love Maine yard sales.
Thats not to say the state is perfectly suited to Taintor. But her musings suggest that her sense of humor has withstood the transition: When I left 11 years ago, I swore Id never live in this freezing state again. Im not looking forward to the endless winter. And I am having a hard time readjusting to humidity; I feel as though Im living in a Dali painting.
So welcome back, Anne, to the land of great vintage magazines, cold winters, old friends and melting clocks. Its about time.