A Brief History of Nail Polish
On this happiest of National Nail Polish Day, we wanted to take a moment to look back the rich and intriguing history of nail polish. Nail polish is well known throughout the world and is known by many names; in the United States, we call it nail polish, nail lacquer or nail color.
Throughout Europe, nail polish is known as vernis à ongle in France, smalto per unghie in Italy, esmalte de uñas in Spain and Nagelpolitur in Germany. Throughout Asia, it is known as マニキュア(Manikyua) in Japan, नेल पॉलिश(nel polish)in Hindi speaking regions of India and as fao fao in Samoa. But the history of nail polish begins in ancient China more than 5,000 years ago. In its earliest form, nail polish was worn by the ruling class and those in high society as a symbol of their wealth and power.
Early nail polish was a mixture of beeswax, gelatin and egg white dyed with orchids or roses, that was applied and left on the nails for a number of hours leaving a stain.
Reds and blacks were very popular colors according to ancient manuscripts, as well as adding in metallic dust of silver and gold. Stained nails were such a symbol of the wealth and powerful, it was a crime for commoners or anyone outside of the ruling or highest classes of society to wear it.
The techniques of the ancient Chinese eventually travelled to India, Africa and the Middle East. Egyptians started coloring their nails with henna. Cleopatra used plant extracts to die her nails a deep blood red and other mummified Pharaohs were found with henna stained nails. It was popular for women across India and Africa to dye their fingertips with henna as an adornment to their beauty.
Nail polish didn’t make its way into Europe until much later, arriving in the late 18th century with trade deals from India and the Middle east. It was still very much associated with wealth and privilege at this stage, until the first nail salon opened in the late 19th century in Paris.
Nail polish still hadn’t developed into its liquid form however. Powders and oils were rubbed into the nails and buffed away, leaving a soft pale pink or a red for the brave!
A very early adopter of nail polish was a member of the French Royal Court; Baroness Marie Liliane Matilda d'Erlanger, who later Princess Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge (1901–1945). She was a style icon of her era and a fan of crimson nail color.
It was only once nail polish travelled from Europe to the US, that advances in nail technology like today’s offerings were developed. The first US nail salon was opened in Manhattan in 1878 by a woman called Mary Cobb. Her $1.25 buff and shine manicures set her up as a successful female entrepreneur and original girl boss.
During World War 1, the US seized German chemical patents, eventually leading to the release of Nitrocellulose into the American market. The ingredient was then included in car paint in the 1920s, inspiring a French makeup artist Michelle Menard, who was working for the Charles Revson company at the time, to develop the first liquid nail polish, essentially an off shoot of car paint. The Charles Revson company was renamed Revlon, and became one of the early leaders in the cosmetics industry.
Nail technologies continued to advance throughout the 1950s with the arrival of nail wraps and acrylic nails, which were accidentally developed by a dentist using the materials to fill cavities. The material, he noted could be molded and formed into what became the first acrylic nails.
Fast forward to today and there are endless options available for nail color to suit everyone’s style, tastes and desires.
At one end of the spectrum is peel-off nail polishes that last a few hours on the nails and the other end is acrylic and gel nails, allowing clients whatever shape, length and color they desire and for several weeks without chipping, but often causing severe and even permanent damage to the nails, cuticles and nail beds.
Today’s consumers are sophisticated and seek nail polish that beautifies their nails, speaks to their individual aesthetic and is clean, vegan and not tested on animals.
We’ve come a long way from the early days in ancient China, henna and car paint. But one thing still holds true; a manicure in any color gives us an instant boost. We can feel bold, sophisticated, edgy, classic, demure or avant guard, just be the color we choose for our nails.
As we celebrate National Nail Polish Day, 2022, take a moment to choose your favorite nail color and celebrate your own very beautiful and very individual style.