Former Second Lady Karen Pence managed to keep a relatively low profile throughout the four years of her national political relevance. But when details about her did emerge, they seemed to describe a supporting character in a Baptist adaptation of The Stepford Wives. There were her husband’s twin pet names for her, “Mother” and “prayer warrior.” There was the fact that she is a painter by trade, whose work looks like this. There was the anecdote that, mere months into dating Pence, she became so convinced he would propose that she engraved a gold cross with the word “Yes” and carried it around in her purse until he did. Mike followed through at the eight-month mark, burying the ring in a loaf of bread. To commemorate the occasion, Karen got the loaf shellacked.
But the best detail about Mother Pence is that she once ran a “towel charm” business called “That’s My Towel!” Charm Inc. This company was incorporated in the state of Indiana; it had both a website, towelcharm.com, and a now–defunct Etsy store. Pence had the name trademarked and copyrighted and applied for a utility patent on the concept. For just $6.25 a charm, anyone could own silver dangling ornaments shaped like French fries, starfish, cameras, dogs, trains, or pizza for their towels. Why would someone want a towel charm exactly? Here’s how Karen put it on her website’s About page:
Most of us have matching bath and beach towels, so it is easy to get them confused. I have had so many times where I was swimming at a friend’s beach house, pool, or lake house, using their matching beautiful beach towels. Lo and behold, I would go in the water for a dip or up to the house for a beverage, and when I came back to my towel, it was gone! Someone else had grabbed my towel unknowingly…because all of the towels looked the same.
When the bathroom holds not merely one’s own towel, but their husband’s towel, and the towels of all their evangelical, unaborted children, the average towel-owner might ask: “Which towel is my towel?” That’s where the charm comes in. One towel-based trinket can put the debate to rest. (“And from now on you will be able to state with confidence …” Pence explained, “‘That’s My Towel!’”) Unfortunately for the fans, the business has quietly disappeared. What happened to Mother’s empire?
Pence formed “That’s My Towel” Charm Inc. in June of 2015. At the time, she was living in the governor’s residence in Indiana, which put the charm start-up in thorny ethical territory. Pence planned to assemble the charms at a desk in the mansion’s private quarters, against the ethics code’s ban on using state property for “personal reasons.” But Karen pitched her towel charms to the Indiana State Ethics Commission, which passed a towel-related amendment to the policy in a unanimous vote. “She came up with the idea of a towel charm,” Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette wrote at the time. “She designed the charm holder that goes through the towel and the company sells the charm holder and choice of charm.”
A spokesperson claimed Karen had trademarked the brand and had a “utility patent pending.” But as far as actually making money, the launch was a wash. Mike Pence’s tax returns, which he released the following fall, disclosed his spouse’s income and assets. In its inaugural year, “That’s My Towel!” netted a loss of $3,407.
The reason Pence’s returns became public, however, is because then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had tapped him as his running mate. That brought Karen, and by extension her towel charms, some press attention. Shortly after Trump tweeted that he’d chosen Pence for his ticket, Jezebel ran a story called: “Karen Pence, Your Future Second Lady, Sells the Least Useful Item In Existence.” Fortune followed with a piece of their own. The media boost was short-lived; less than 48 hours later, the towel charms Etsy store disappeared, and the website was down. A notice claimed the business was “on hold.”
The reasons for the disappearance were never revealed; Huffington Post offered that perhaps Karen’s terry cloth entrepreneurship was embarrassing for the campaign. It may well have been campaign-related, as That’s My Towel! went back online after the inauguration. It’s unclear when or why exactly Towel Charms made their return; the relaunch happened quietly — so quietly that Jezebel’s towel charm correspondent only found out after a commenter claimed the site had mistakenly called the company “defunct.” According to the WayBack Machine, the site was still on hold by late April of 2017, and officially back as of July 22.
The site was still active until at least February 2018, but the company now appears to be in a kind of limbo. Their Etsy store has disappeared. Their website is down. Their Twitter account, which has just 19 followers, is private. The bio notes only: “Thank you for your interest in Towel Charms. The business is currently on hold.”
Despite all that, the company is still an actively registered business in the state of Indiana. Oddly, Karen herself is not named in any of its filed documents — Mike Pence is listed as the president, and Indianapolis attorney Patricia Bailey as its registered officer. Neither Bailey nor a Pence spokesperson returned our request for comment, but they appear to still have some investment in the towel charm market; “That’s My Towel” Charm Inc. filed an annual report just last year.
Mike Pence’s financial disclosures might help fill in some of the gaps. After netting its $3,407 loss in 2015, the business went on to earn little profit. Pence’s disclosure forms from 2016 and 2017 both value the company at “None (or less than $1,001).” The following year, “That’s My Towel!” disappeared from the disclosures entirely.
Notably, the disappearance of Karen’s towel hustle in 2018 coincided with a new income generator: a series of children’s books, illustrated by Pence and written by her daughter, about the travails of the family rabbit, known variously as “BOTUS” or “Marlon Bundo.” Their debut book, called Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, came out that March. Pence would go on to illustrate two sequels — Marlon Bundo's A Day in the Nation's Capital and Marlon Bundo's Best Christmas Ever — and go on a press tour with the titular bunny. Perhaps that took her time away from towels.
In the meantime, TowelCharm.com is apparently up for grabs. A sales agent at GoDaddy told me that the domain registrar was brokering the deal on behalf of a “private seller” who set the list price. They are currently asking for $15,645.