A Wicked Sense of Humor

You might not know entrepreneur Anne Taintor, but you probably recognize her hilarious cards, magnets, and novelties.

By Suzanne Rico

Anne Taintor has one blue eye and one green, a pastel combination that dazzles when the sun streaks into the barn of her 1783 farmhouse in Portland.  Her dog Stella, a black and white stray Taintor picked up years ago, has different colored eyes, too — brown and ice-blue — which make them an unusual pair as we walk down a green hill to the Stroudwater River. There we sit in white Adirondack-style chairs, two women talking about our families and our futures as three snow-white geese glide in the slow moving water. This is a very Anne Taintor-ish moment.

“So what’s the caption here?” I ask Taintor, founder of a Maine-born business that reaches into the seven figures, and she laughs, throwing her pony-tailed head back with the legitimate gusto that has been a hallmark of her success.

“I’d rather be the goose!” she answers, and it is clear Taintor is not done delivering punch lines yet.

Even if you don’t recognize Anne Taintor’s name, you probably know her work. Her company, Vintage Revisited, started in 1985 when she began buying old magazines at Maine junk shops and making art out of the advertisements inside to sell at craft fairs.  She decorated magnets, mugs, cards, and coasters with the happy faces of female models from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, adding wry, sarcastic, or sometimes downright dirty captions in her humorous, signature style.

All it took was imagining what was going on behind the apron and the perfect smiles.

“I’m sure some women had perfect lives, were perfectly happy being taken care of by men, and were really happy when they got a new appliance,” says Taintor. “But that was probably a very small percentage.”

And so, Taintor imagines two chicly coiffed 1950s women watching their children playing happily on the living room floor thinking, “I love being a mom, but I could never do it sober!” Another woman, scrubbing dishes in an immaculate kitchen with an apron tied around her perfect purple dress, muses, “If looks could kill, women wouldn’t need frying pans!”

“I think of it as laughing with women about gender expectations,” says Taintor. “I don’t think I’m the only woman who is resentful of sexist attitude and gender stereotyping. I’m not the only woman who is annoyed when someone tells them they’re lucky their husband cooks.”

Taintor’s business success has its roots in both her feminist past and her own personal failure. In first grade, when she was told that she couldn’t be a priest, she rebelled and vowed never to be defined by her sex. In 1977, she graduated from Harvard, with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies, and soon moved back to Maine, ready to make her mark on the world as an artist. But then she got sidetracked on the same path as many of the subjects that now decorate her magnets and mini-trays; she married early, had a baby, and found herself sitting on the couch feeling miserable and unfulfilled. By the age of thirty-one, she was a divorced single mom, working as a waitress to make ends meet. Scared she could not support herself and her daughter for much longer, Taintor says she decided to stop feeling sorry for herself, get back to her artist roots, and work harder than she ever had in her life.

“That was a new way of looking at things for me because I didn’t grow up with the message of me being responsible,” says Taintor. “If there was a problem, my attitude was poor me, I can’t do this. And then I realized I had to do it.”

The new attitude paid off. Anne Taintor, Inc., headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, now has nearly a hundred sales representatives across the country. Three thousand stores in twenty-five countries sell Taintor’s goods, with manufacturers in Maine, New York, California, and China turning out Vintage Revisited’s in-demand, ever-expanding product line.

Right now, her company is enjoying both a sales and a creative boom. She is selling more magnets, sure. But now you can also buy a luggage tag featuring a dark-haired beauty in a pink hat asking her Ken-doll perfect husband, “Did we forget the children at baggage claim . . . again?” But Taintor says the biggest bonus of her success has been the virtual relationship she has formed with women all over the world.

“I always have been kind of a hermit, even in high school and college,” says Taintor. “I was never someone who socialized a lot and I always felt odd and different. And it’s nice to know that I’m not as weird as I thought I was!”

Taintor, in fact, is not weird at all. She is warm and self-deprecating, seeming unaware that she has, through her art, given voice to several generations of women who were taught to hide behind a smile and a new refrigerator, washing machine, or iron.

“I’m a very nervous person,” she says, “very insecure.” Wait a minute. Really? “Well, not insecure in that I’m worthless, but insecure as in I might end up a bag lady.”

“That’s the motivation behind the Anne Taintor industries?” I ask, and her laugh bursts out again, boisterous and not uncertain at all. “It was pretty much all luck,” she responds. The note of humility does not ring false.

But when you visit Taintor’s home office it becomes quite clear that she puts an immense amount of thought, creativity, and planning into keeping her business current, funny, and unique. Located up a steep, narrow stairway on the second floor of her old house, where she and her husband of ten years moved last year when they decided to return to Maine from a ten-year stint in New Mexico, it is filled with lights and uber-organized. The floorboards are painted robin’s egg blue and dozens of black binders line her bookshelves, categorized “Kitchen Goddesses” or “Nice Ladies” or “Mature Women.” Along one wall is a huge storage cabinet made of oak, lined with Ph-balanced boxes full of magazines that haven’t been utilized yet. Pulling open a random drawer, I grab a Ladies Home Journal from 1942 and flip it open to a mother holding a little boy on her lap. It’s an ad for Palmolive soap with the caption, “Gee, Mommy, but you’re pretty!” Taintor stares at this lady from long ago with bright red lipstick and a saucy smile. “I was trying to work on something about being a cougar,” she says, doing what comes naturally. “Or about how mommy is a MILF.” And then this fifty-nine year old mother actually blushes. “No, no, that’s too . . . that wouldn’t work,” she says, like she should be embarrassed for thinking it at all.

For lunch, Taintor serves fresh arugula picked from her garden and lobster rolls picked up from Anania’s Deli. She is happy to be back in her home state, describing the herons and kingfishers she loves to watch by the river. Portland has been the perfect choice, giving her a small city feel with big city culture. In New Mexico, if Taintor wanted to see live music, she and her husband would have to drive somewhere and stay overnight.

“Here,” she says, “Greg Brown was playing two miles from the house!” And when Taintor travels to trade shows or to oversee her ever-expanding empire, she walks to the Portland International Jetport. At this image, I can’t help but think that Anne Taintor is an accidental executive, a woman really good at one thing but who might be more satisfied doing something else — much like the women on her magnets. She tells me she has set up an artist’s studio, but has not had the time to work there yet.

“It’s where I dry the laundry now,” she says, “but that has to change. I’m looking for someone to take over the helm so that I can be more creative.” At this, Anne Taintor grabs the napkin off her lap and holds it up for me to see. It is one of hers, printed with a picture of three women waterskiing together in modest, multicolored one-piece swimsuits and one of her newest captions.

“After all,” she quips, “you’re never too old to try something stupid!” Taintor’s different colored eyes glint with a touch of the womanly wickedness that has made her such a success, and I get the feeling she is getting ready to reinvent herself all over again.