Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
Nail polish is a beauty staple beloved by almost everyone. Whether you have a recurring appointment with your local nail technician or are currently hoarding a drawer filled to the brim with a rainbow of different coloured nail polishes, it’s a fairly easy (and popular) beauty routine to get behind.
Even if you don’t paint your nails regularly or hop on the latest colour trend (BTW 2022’s “colour of the year” is Very Peri, a soft periwinkle colour that’s easy on the eyes – and on the nails), you probably understand that your nails can say a lot about you, and history has proven this over and over again through the centuries. Believe it or not, the colour of nails has historically borne mythic, social and political significance across various cultures and civilizations throughout the years. In fact, there is probably a lot about nail polish that is pretty surprising. (For example: did you know that the invention of high-gloss car paint actually influenced modern-day nail polish?) Here’s the fascinating history of nail polish, from the very beginning.
It all started with the ancient Babylonians…
Intriguingly enough, it was men, not women, who first started colouring their nails. Around 3200 BCE, Babylonian soldiers would stain their fingernails with kohl before going off to battle in an effort to intimidate their enemies. Nails were painted either green or black, which is believed to have signified their class. Black nails may have been considered higher rank, whereas green fingernails…not so much.
At around the same time, the Inca people in South America received nail treatments and would go to battle with painted nails, believing that it would instill fear among their adversaries.
The first nail treatments as part of a beauty routine happened around 200 years later in ancient China, when Chinese noble women began to colour their nails similar to how we use nail polish today…although the process was very different. To colour their nails, women would soak their fingers for several hours in a mixture of beeswax, gum arabic, gelatin and egg whites. Natural dyes from orchids and roses were also applied on the nails to give a hint of colour.
During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), which was among the most culturally significant of the early Chinese dynasties and the longest lasting of any in China’s history, women of different classes wore nail polish whether they were privileged or not. However, there were strict rules because the colour of a woman’s nails signified her social status. For thousands of years, gold and silver nails could be worn only by women in higher social ranks; women of a lower social rank were only allowed to wear pale-coloured nails, to affirm their inferiority. The consequences of not abiding by the nail colour regulations were extremely severe: any lower-class Chinese girl who painted her fingernails in royal colours would have faced the death penalty. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), royal nail polish colour preferences had switched to red and black.
Although the Chinese were pioneers in the origins of nail polish, Egyptian women and men were also colouring their nails by 3000 BCE. While their methods for painting their nails differed from the formulas used by the Chinese, colour still signified social status. Ancient Egyptians used henna to polish their nails, with deep red hues reserved for those of high rank. Henna wasn’t the only product they used to colour their nails; ancient Egypt also produced some nail polish blends that were lacquer-like in formula and Egyptian women frequently used berries to stain their nails, as well.
It is a common notion that both Nefertiti (1370–1330 BCE) and Cleopatra (69–30 BCE) were trendsetters in their time, and it is believed that it was Queen Nefertiti who first dyed her nails red in ancient Egypt as a symbol of her royal status. She usually wore ruby-red nails, and her hands dyed with henna, but some sources suggest that she also used blood as a colouring agent. Years later, Cleopatra also wore red nails during her rule of Egypt, and nobody else was allowed to dye their nails the same colour.
Around the same time, women from across India and Africa began to dye their fingertips with henna as an adornment.
Manicuring and the first-ever nail salons
The 19th century was filled with lots of innovation in the nail polish sector. During this time in the Western world, having well-manicured hands became increasingly important as it showed that you lived a life of leisure. This is also when manicuring became an actual job.
In the late 19th century, the first commercial nail salons opened in Paris. These salons offered a variety of services to both men and women, and manicurists would use oils, creams, powders and buffers to ensure that customers left the salon with clean, polished nails that had a shine. Nail polish still hadn’t developed into its liquid form; instead, powders and oils were rubbed into the nails and buffed away, leaving a soft pink colour (or slightly more red for the brave). From France, the art of nail treatment made its way to the United States. Mary E. Cobb (1852–1902) first learned the art of the manicure in France before she redeveloped the process and brought it back home with her to the United States. In 1878, Cobb opened the first-ever nail salon in North America; her “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” in New York City charged $1.25 for a manicure. Cobb slightly changed the traditional French way of doing nails, and her methods embraced a multi-step process of soaking the fingers, carefully trimming the nails and then shaping the nails. Over time, Cobb developed a savvy business manner and within a decade her business was thriving, with a clientele ranging from socialites to showgirls to prostitutes.
“She branded herself the originator of the manicure arts,” said Suzanne E. Shapiro, author of the 2014 book Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure. “She focused on the gentility of elegant hands, and hers was not unlike a simple manicure of today.”
Besides opening North America’s first-ever nail salon, Cobb created the very first at-home manicure guide, developed her own line of products and later helped invent the emery board.
Modern-day nail polish
Liquid nail polish, as we know it today, didn’t really exist until the early 1900s, and there have been plenty of disputes over the years as to the identity of the ultimate inventor of modern-day nail polish. The story of modern-day nail polish starts in New York in 1911, when chemist Northam Warren (1878–1962) launched his company Cutex with just one product: Cutex Cuticle Remover, an extract for softening the cuticles around the nail bed to avoid the need for cutting or scraping. The cuticle extract (hence the name cut-ex) was a success, and Warren began adding other manicure preparations to build up the line. In 1914, Cutex produced the first nail tints and then a clear liquid polish in 1917. The invention of modern-day nail polish wasn’t far off at this point.
During World War I, the US seized German chemical patents, leading to the release of nitrocellulose onto the American market. At the time, the ingredient was included in car paint to give cars a high-gloss finish. Then, in 1920, French makeup artist Michelle Menard took things a step further and forever changed the world of beauty when she adapted the high-gloss enamel used for cars to create a long-lasting liquid polish for nails that was made of pigments instead of dyes. Her alterations to the car enamel formula resulted in a glossy nail lacquer that was very similar to the nail polish we use today.
At the time, Menard was working at the Charles Revson Company in New York, which had been started by Charles Revson, his brother Martin Revson, and a chemist named Charles Lachman. The founders of the company thought Menard’s idea had potential and set up a factory to begin manufacturing it. The company renamed itself Revlon (the ‘L’ stood for Lachman) and started selling the first modern nail polish, a non-streaking opaque nail polish, in 1932 through beauty and hair salons. Later they introduced lipsticks to match the nail polish, and by 1937, Revlon was a recognizable beauty brand with products in a variety of department and drug stores across the United States.
Of course, both Cutex and Revlon remain major beauty brands today.
The next major development with nails came in 1934, when a dentist in Chicago named Maxwell Lappe came up with a product that he called Nu Nails, an artificial nail created specifically for nail biters. Dentists must have had a thing for nail care, because the first modern acrylic nails were developed by another dentist, Wisconsin-born Fred Slack, in 1957. Slack had broken a nail at work, and to repair it he used aluminum foil and dental acrylic from his lab, designing a faux nail that looked incredibly realistic. It prompted the dentist to collaborate with his brother to create – and later patent – what we know today as acrylic nails.
Colour trends and the French manicure
The introduction of Technicolor in 1922 changed everything and, most notably, began to stir up beauty trends. Moviegoers were dazzled by the colours they saw on the big screens and by the glamour of Hollywood, especially actresses like Rita Hayworth, who stunned with her trademark red lips and matching nails. Revlon, of course, capitalized on this trend and created an extensive line of nail polishes for any taste.
Red was the colour of choice for nails up until the end of the 1950s, but with the beginning of the ’60s counterculture, statement red nails were replaced with lighter pastel shades. By the ’70s, actresses like Mia Farrow, Farrah Fawcett and Goldie Hawn were all sporting softer shades on their nails.
In 1976, Jeff Pink, an American makeup artist and the founder of Orly, was working in Hollywood and was challenged by the studios to come up with a nail colour solution that could match multiple costume changes for leading ladies. So, according to Orly, he created the incredibly versatile French manicure to give a natural look to nails that would complement any costume. Little did he know that it would become an instant phenomenon off the big screen as well, and would go on to become one of the most popular styles of manicures ever invented.
While the French manicure remained popular through the following decades, nail colour trends would continue to change. In the 1980s, the rise of the soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas saw statement colours like fuchsia and bright red become popular. In the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s nails were painted with Chanel’s Rouge Noir (a.k.a. “Vamp”), a colour created to mimic the appearance of dried blood. The shade, like the movie, became an instant cult classic, and Chanel’s nail polish colour became impossible to keep on shelves. To this day, Rouge Noir/Vamp remains one of the most requested Chanel products of all time.
By the early 2000s, nail trends included frosted nail polish, jewel tones and extensive nail art, and plenty of men started to wear nail polish as a way to express themselves beyond stereotypes of masculinity.
Today, nail polish is truly for anyone who has nails, and it has become a multibillion-dollar industry that just keeps on growing. Crazy colours and elaborate nail art have taken over not only the runway but social media, with tutorials and nail art hacks everywhere! (Have you been on TikTok lately?) There’s even the recent release of Sally Hansen’s augmented reality feature, which lets you see what your hands look like wearing any of hundreds of nail polish shades – in motion and in changing light. The new virtual try-on technology means women and men will always be able to pick the perfect nail polish colour.
What could top that? Only time will tell. But it’s safe to say that the art of nail making is more vibrant and alive than ever.
Want more? You can read other stories from our The Story Of series right here.