Launched by three dudes from a Brooklyn apartment in the summer of 2005, and named after a nonsense word of fuzzy origins, Etsy was initially intended to be a sort of online craft fair. Early listings included mostly handmade jewelry and ceramics, idiosyncratic artwork and baubles, one-of-a-kind toys and clothes, and even artisan furniture.
Fifteen years later, however, Etsy is a publicly traded company with a $22 billion market cap — and, arguably, the bulk of its sales are for shirts, drinkware, tote bags, and other ephemera with the seemingly ubiquitous phrase, “Mama Needs Wine.”
“Mama Needs Wine” returns 18,400,000 Google Search results, and the first return, ahead of Amazon, Target, and even Facebook, is for Etsy. The online retailer supposedly dedicated to mom ‘n’ pop shops has its own pages and URLs strictly for “Mama Needs Wine” and “Mommy Needs Wine” merchandise.
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How did such a tossed-off phrase come to dominate Etsy?
‘Tons of Them’
To a certain extent, it seems like “mama needs wine” is just something people have always said, like “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” People had surely been saying it in the aughts — Romper speculates it would have occurred pretty much a second after Facebook launched in 2006. The earliest internet mention I find of the phrase is on the Mama Needs Wine blog, started in late 2010 with a post titled “Play Dates Suck.”
“Maybe this is why my local liquor store owner knows my name,” jokes the anonymous blogger. “Because just the thought of another play date makes me grab 2 bottles of wine for the night ahead.” In further posts, she would more critically assess her favorite bottles.
But, if no one gets credit for coining the phrase, who deserves credit for commercializing it on Etsy?
“Wine Mom” merch started showing up on the website as early as 2014, although the company declined to verify this (and old listings are no longer available on the site itself). “Mama Needs Wine was actually one of my first T-shirt designs — I just came up with it myself,” says Tori Tinnon, an Austin-based mother of four, who launched her Mama Bird & Co on Etsy in 2016.
“I drink wine quite a bit,” Tinnon says of her inspiration for putting the phrase on a shirt. She tried to make that initial design look like a vintage wine label. “Moms typically love wine, it’s relaxing, something we look forward to once we get the kids to bed,” she says.
More importantly, Tinnon had the perfect quiver of skills for elevating the phrase to Etsy ubiquity. She was the former GM and partner of a wine bar, Cork & Co., and a wine-friendly restaurant, Paggi House. She’d had a longtime side hustle as a designer, too. But perhaps most importantly, she was the owner of a social media and PR agency and knew how to connect with women and generate buzz. Mama Needs Wine would do both almost immediately, and the shirts would begin flying out of her Etsy store.
“We sold tons of them,” she says.
Plenty of other Etsy sellers like Tinnon followed. People like Melissa Horvath, the owner and designer at Sweet Water Decor, and a mom of two toddlers today, started her self-proclaimed “motivational [and] inspirational brand” in her basement in December 2014, right as pithy wine merch was beginning to take off. Initially, she strictly sold travel mugs with funny statements, such as “This is Probably Wine.”
By 2016, she moved onto actual wine drinkware with printed sayings on them, and, yes, one of those was, of course, “Mama Needs Wine.”
They, too, were a huge hit.
By late 2016, the phrase “mama needs wine”was on an upward trajectory on Google Trends. “Wine mom” culture in general circa 2016 had “exploded onto the scene in a burst of Amy Schumer GIFs captioned ‘It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!’” added Romper.
By 2018, Mama Needs Wine merch had finally become ubiquitous on Etsy with hoodies, socks, hats, mugs, framed signs, stickers, decals, shadow boxes (to display corks), and tote bags — these especially appearing from dozens, if not hundreds of different sellers.
In 2019, Lulusimon Studio, a Bay Area-based merchandiser, tried to trademark “Mama Needs Some Wine” for use on apparel and glassware. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the only wine-related product it sells today is a “Tipsy AF” stemless plastic wine glass. Trademarking a phrase is just not how things really work in the “co-opt a mom meme” marketplace of Etsy.
Meanwhile, “Mama Needs Wine” continues to be Tinnon’s bestseller, despite selling hundreds of other designs these days — shirts with statements like “Babes Support Babes,” and “Badass Woman.” She now offers the phrase on everything from retro-fitted ringers to muscle tanks, to off-the-shoulder shirts and boyfriend tees. And yet, she has never considered trademarking the phrase. “It’s not worth the money, time, and energy,” she says. In the world of Etsy, copycats are going to happen — you pretty much have to expect it once some pithy phrase like Mama Needs Wine becomes popular. “I don’t feel bothered by it,” she says.
Honestly, I have no idea how to prove whether Tinnon truly was the first to commercialize the phrase or not, as she claims, but I’m not sure it really matters — and I think she’d agree. She was certainly one of the first merchants to start turning Etsy into a one-stop shop for Mama Needs Wine swag, and was there at the moment when Mama Needs Wine took over Etsy for good. She feels she can overcome the tens of thousands of competitors due to her shop’s superior printing, customer service, and especially community, as seen by her 20,000-plus Instagram followers.
Horvath isn’t worried about her competition, either, and that might be because she’s become the most successful Mama Needs Wine seller on all of Etsy.
“I think our brand tells the story,” she says, the implication being she offers higher quality than a lot of the slapdash crap out there — for example, by hand-lettering every single piece in her shop. “Our customers love that we are a small, women-owned business,” she says. The proof is in the pudding: Horvath counts 67,000 Instagram followers and has been featured on both “Good Morning America” and the “Today” show.
Mama Needs Wine in 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has, if anything, bolstered the conceptual and consumer need for “Mama Needs Wine.” The branded merchandise remains a sensation on Etsy that is only getting bigger and bigger, with more and more shops jumping into the game.
An Etsy spokesperson told me the online marketplace has seen a 48 percent increase in searches for wine items in the last three months, compared to the same time the previous year. There was a 31 percent increase in searches on Etsy for “funny” wine items in the same period.
A good portion of these searches are surely bolstering sales for “Mama Needs Wine” T-shirts, which are arguably set up to become the unofficial work-from-home uniform of Covid-era mothers. Look around on Instagram — or your next Zoom call — and you might even see one yourself. (And, yes, there are now accompanying masks, too.)
Horvath agrees. “I think especially in 2021 — between homeschooling kids and being quarantined, mama (really!) needs wine,” she says.
Ultimately, there’s no complex scheme to discover behind the sweeping success of the “Mama Needs Wine” lifestyle. The answer is really as simple as you might expect. As Tinnon says, “It’s basically a true statement for moms.”