The History of Nail Polish

The nail polish is regarded as a symbol of beauty for thousands of years by women and men alike. However, before nail polish was considered beautiful, it was used for various purposes other than showing the elegance of one’s nails. Here is a brief history of the nail polish, from its origins to the story of how it became a popular status symbol.

Manicured Warriors

In 3200 BC, Babylonian warriors would often paint their nails in two different colors before they go to battle. They believed that painting their nails scared off enemies since their nails may look ill from afar if they don’t show their natural colors.

The warriors would color their nail in black or green, but their choice of color depends on their rank in society. Those who belong to the higher class would have to paint their nails black, while those in the lower class should color their nails green, a color that is considered less desirable. It is interesting to note that their nails are not the only body part that they paint, as they would usually color their lips with the same color in their nails.

Chinese Status Symbol

It wasn’t until 3000 BC when painted nails became a mark of beauty among members of society, particularly the Chinese. Women in china during that period would mix beeswax, egg whites, and Arabic gum to create the coating that will stick to the nails, but the nobles would often add dye from flowers like roses into the mixture.

Upper-class women were much freer to paint their nails in any color, while the poorer class have only a limited variety of colors to choose from, and those are mostly paler than the ones used by the nobles. If a lower-class woman tried to paint her nails in a color that is only applicable to the upper class, then she will be sentenced to death.

Popular colors for the elite would vary from each dynasty. The Zhou dynasty had gold and silver as the trendiest colors; while in the Ming dynasty, the most favored color was black and red.

Cleopatra and Henna

In ancient Egypt, women would use henna to paint their hands in different designs that were regarded as beautiful during that period and even in several cultures existing today. However, Cleopatra didn’t like painting her entire hands; instead, she preferred coloring only her nails using henna.

It is believed that she would dip only her fingers on henna, and leave the paint on her nails while taking it out on other parts of the finger. According to research, Cleopatra’s favorite color was red.

The Rise of the Nail Salon

nails with different designs

Nail polish will continue to be used for hundreds of years, and its popularity in the late 1870s gave birth to the profession known as the manicurist, which is sometimes known as a nail technician.

Mary E. Cobb, the first known manicurist in America, opened up a shop in 1878 called “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” that specializes in giving customers professional manicure. Cobb’s would be known as the first-ever nail salon, and Cobb would then inspire other manicurists to open their own salon.

Cutex Nail Polish

In 1911, Cutex founder Northam Warren created the first fingernail cuticle remover, which allows dead nail cells to be removed around the nails to make them healthier. Besides the remover, Warren also created nail tints in 1914 that enabled more options for shades. But Warren’s most significant invention was the liquid nail polish in 1917, which eventually became popular in the late 1920s. His liquid nail polish became so popular that other brands started to pop up to mimic Cutex’s success, and one of these brands was Revlon.

Revlon and the Glossy Nail Lacquer

Michelle Menard, a French makeup artist in the 1920s, wanted to replicate the shiny paint used on cars and apply it to nails. After perfecting her formula in 1932, she partnered with the company Revlon, which was owned by brothers Charles Revson and Joseph Revson, to launch a line of glossy nail lacquer products to the public.

The different colors for Menard’s nail enamel were well-received by the masses, thus turning Revlon into one of the biggest cosmetics brands in the world.

Artificial Nails

In 1954, a dentist named Fred Slack broke one of his fingernails while working. Bothered by the broken fingernail, Slack then created a fake nail out of dental acrylic and aluminum foil to make it look like his nails are symmetrical to one another.

After seeing that the fake nail he created has the potential to become a successful product in the market, Fred Slack then asked his brother Tom Slack to patent a refined version of the fake nail and created a company known as Patti Nails. Artificial nails then became a fad in the late 20th century, as it is a quicker way for women to change or swap colors and designs for their nails.

Nail Polish in Pop Culture

a woman polishing her own nails

Nail polish became even more popular when celebrities have endorsed or recommended certain shades or brands of nail polish in their interviews and movies.

Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe, who are believed to have the longest nails in show business, helped popularized red nail polish in the 1950s by appearing in several posters and movies wearing the particular shade.

Joan Rivers, an American comedian, once mentioned on TV her favorite color for her nails, which was “Jelly Apple.” After she said her preferred nail color live on-air, the shade quickly became sold in out in almost all department stores and cosmetics shops in the United States.

One of the most famous nail polish products, the Chanel Rouge Noir (now known as the Vamp Nail Polish), became well-known after Uma Thurman wore it in the movie Pulp Fiction that was directed by Quentin Tarantino and was released in 1994. It can be argued that the Rogue Noir was really intended to be used as one of the symbols of violence in the film since it is suggested by many that the shade of the nail polish resembled blood that has been dried up.

Today, the Chanel Rouge Noir remains a highly sought-after nail polish among manicure enthusiasts, and many more shades are becoming popular as celebrities became more involved in the industry by promoting or endorsing several cosmetic products.