The History of Nail Polish
People have been decorating and enhancing the visible parts of their bodies since ancient times, and fingernails are no exception. Like many cosmetics products, evidence found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians shows that they dyed their fingernails with henna, and sometimes even had them gilded. Nail polish and other cosmetic enhancements were not limited to female Egyptians; males also colored their nails, lined their eyes, and died their eyelids. This appears to have begun as a way to ward off evil, but eventually, nail polish and other cosmetics were used daily to promote attractiveness.
In ancient China, a nail color was created by using vegetable dyes, sticky egg whites, and gelatin, and was used to indicate class status, with the highest-ranked members of society wearing first metallic silver or gold colors, and then later red or black, while the lower classes wore lighter colors. The crime of a lower class person wearing red or black polish was punishable by death.
In ancient Babylonia, warriors dyed their fingernails with black kohl and often dyed their lips to match before battles. Lower ranked members wore green dyes on their nails and lips.
Nail Polish in Western Societies
Like most ancient cosmetics, nail polish vanished along with the fall of the Roman Empire and wasn’t seen again until much later when cosmetic enhancement began to return to upper-class European society thanks to new trade route connections to India and the Middle East. Shiny, tinted nails can be seen in many paintings of royalty and upper-class women of the 17th century, when nail polish was more of a tinted buffing lotion or paste than the lacquer-like product we recognize as nail polish today.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that nail polish began to become more widely used among people of the general population, with manicure parlors beginning to show up in France. Color was buffed into nail beds with dyes and tints and became a widely accepted grooming process amongst those of the upper and middle classes.
Nail Polish Comes to the U.S.
It wasn’t until a Virginia woman named Mary E. Cobb married podiatrist, Dr. Joseph Pray who created foot powders, and together they visited manicure establishments in France that nail polishing was introduced in the US. In 1878 Mary opened a salon called Mrs. Pray’s Manicure, where not only did she introduce her original idea for filing nails with the first emery boards, borrowed from the carpentry industry, but she further revolutionized the manicure process by painting her client’s fingernails with pink or red-colored enamel. By the turn of the century, she was the owner of one of the largest female-operated businesses in the world.
In 1911 a nail polish products began to be mass-marketed by the Cutex company, a business that had formerly only produced a cuticle cream. Cutex nail polishes came in cake form, or paste, powder, and sticks.
It wasn’t until 1925 that a shiny liquid nail varnish was developed and marketed, inspired by automobile paint and produced by brand-new cosmetics company Revlon. The flapper craze made the nail polish popularity take-off, and it has remained not only popular but also a common beauty standard ever since.
With the addition of technicolor to the motion-picture world in the 1940s, popular actress Rita Hayworth’s preference for bright red nail polish inspired a red nail polish trend that overcame the pink polish preferences of the 1930s and dozens of new red shades were launched by cosmetics companies around the world.
Nail Polish Today
Nail polish styles have come and gone and come back again, including a lingering French-tip manicure craze, half-moon polish, decorated tips, and other artistic looks.
In 1994, after Uma Thurman’s Pulp Fiction character wore a Chanel nail polish shade known as “Vamp,” it sold out in stores everywhere and is still the most requested Chanel product of all time.
Between 2011 and 2012, nail polish sales soared up by 32 percent and topped $768 million dollars and have increased yearly ever since. With nail art continually trending on Pinterest and other social media platforms, it appears that nail polish is here to stay, and trends will keep getting more and more intricate and artistic.