A Short History of Nail Polish

Fun fact: I have not one, but two defunct nail art blogs (Don’t look for them. Really. I’m not good at it).

So it’s not surprising that I, a history buff and general nerd, found myself wondering where nail polish originated.

Apparently it all started back around 3200 BCE, when Babylonian warriors would go get a makeover before going off to battle. I’m not sure I’d want to go beat someone up after spending hours in a salon chair and risk that brand new manicure, but you do you.

These manicures would have been kohl based, and they would have used a lacquer to apply/seal the color. The color chosen signified social rank, and apparently black was the highest and most important (take that, Mom. My gothy manicure isn’t unprofessional, it means I’m in charge!), while those with green nails were much lower ranking.

Similarly, Chinese nobility also wore nail polish made of beeswax, gelatin, egg whites, and gum Arabic, and vegetable dyes, once again with the color signifying rank. At different periods, gold, silver, red, and black were reserved for royalty, and you could be executed for picking the wrong color for your rank. Yikes.

Women have been using henna to dye their hair and skin for millennia, and using it to color nails is a natural extension of that (after all, in the days before plastic/rubber gloves, staining was pretty much inevitable). Cleopatra is said to use blood red henna for her manicure, and this is still done today in various cultures, though the practice in Egypt goes back at least a couple thousand years before her birth, with a reddish brown being the most popular overall.

Fast forward a few centuries, and in early 1800s Greece, an English politician noted the the women tinted their nails pink using lavender oil, carmine, and tin oxide. He wrote back to a friend that it was an ancient custom in the region, and a nail polish paste was available for sale.

It probably won’t shock anyone that the first modern nail salon opened in Paris…in 1878. It was an instant success, and the owner, Mary Cobb, also opened one in the United States. We also have her to thank for the emery board, which can be an absolute lifesaver. It was such a popular service, that soon catalogues were offering manicure sets for use at home for those who couldn’t make it to the big city and pay for the service. They included many familiar tools for trimming and buffing the nails, as well as sometimes colored powders that could be rubbed into the nails, usually to make them a little more pink or to enhance natural coloration.

When it comes to nailcare as we know it today, Cutex was the first big brand sold in pharmacies. They launched in 1911 with a total of 1 product: a cuticle softener to remove dead skin. In 1916 they began offering clear and lightly colored/semi-transparent nail polish. These were available in sticks, powders, and liquid, but when the owner of Cutex visited Paris in 1920 and saw that Parisian women preferred liquid to the exclusion of all others, he dropped the stick and powder lines to focus on the liquid formulation. By 1925 they had taken a concoction based on DuPont’s automotive paint, added bright colors, and the liquid nail polish we know today was born, but it wasn’t quite ready to take off–that came in 1928 when a safe, acetone-based polish remover was developed and became available to the wider market.

The trendy colors over the years have varied widely. In the twenties, orange and vamp red were popular, and in the 1950s the French manicure was born in Paris…created by an American fashion designer who wanted a neutral, but eye-catching look for his models on the runway.

Nowadays, we have so many options, from long-wearing gel polish to super cheap glitter polishes available at the dollar store, to scented polish, peel off bases, nourishing nail treatments, and a rainbow of colors and finishes to choose from. We can get airbrushed designs and special tools for drawing our own nail art at home. My personal favorites are all shades of teal/turquoise, black, and the classic vamp red. I’m also a sucker for a glitter polish, though I usually regret it later. Eventually, I’ll even get one of those UV lamps, but I haven’t been willing to switch over my entire polish collection to gel just yet.

Further Reading:
The Fascinating History of Nail Polish
History of Nail Polish
Nail Polish Wiki