Nail polish is a symbol of self care and self expression. Flaunting a fresh, shiny coat may mean that you indulged in a luxurious manicure, or that you lacquered up DIY-style because you were feeling artsy.
But the origins and initial inspirations for painting one’s fingertips weren’t quite as glamorous. It was once used to represent your place in society as a member of a certain class — and at times, even told the world that you were preparing for war. Here is polish’s colorful history from the very first nail tints, to how it came to be the mani we all know and love.
Ancient Nail Tinting
When did it all begin? It’s likely that people have been tinting and tending to their nails as far back as 5000 B.C.E., when women would decorate their fingertips with henna. A thousand years later, Babylonian warriors would have their hair and nails lacquered before going off to battle. Archaeologists even unearthed a solid gold manicure set in Southern Babylonia, dating back to 3200 B.C.E., which was found along with combat equipment — rather than in a bathhouse or with other homewares. It's believed that black coloring was reserved for higher ranking soldiers and green for the rest.
Later, in China circa 3000 B.C.E., boldly colored nail tints were made out of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and vegetable dyes. But not all colors were allowed for everyone; nail colors were used as a distinction of rank and royalty. During certain reigns, like the Ming Dynasty, the lower classes could wear light nail shades, but wearing the darker, royal colors was punishable by death.
In Egypt, the proletariat also wore pale colors, while nobility painted on reddish brown henna. Mummified pharaohs also had henna and gold painted fingertips. It’s rumored that Cleopatra used henna just on her nails versus the tradition of having intricate designs painted onto the entire hand.
This trend of henna-dipped nails was also seen in the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, and North Africa, but in China and Korea, red nails were created using crushed flowers.
The First Nail Salons
A version of the manicure service we know and love today most likely began with King Louis Philippe of France in the mid-1800s. He received regular nail grooming by a man named Monsieur Sitts. Inspired by this, nail parlors started opening up throughout Paris in the 1870s offering "unfussy buff-and-shine" services to the public.
An American woman named Mary E. Cobb took things to the next level. She studied the art of nail care in France, established her own manicure system, and then opened a salon called “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” in Manhattan in 1878. (Fittingly, Cobb's then-husband, Dr. Jay Parker Pray, was a hand and foot doctor.) This was the very first nail salon in the United States, and she would later expand to upstate New York and Chicago.
It’s said that Cobb charged $1.25 for a basic manicure which didn’t include polish, since polish as we know it wasn’t officially invented yet. She did, however, offer her own creation called “Cosmetic Cherri-Lip,” which was designed to give nails (and lips) a subtle, healthy, rosy tint. Cobb also created an at-home manual and a line of manicure products, and is credited with inventing an essential nail-care tool that is still widespread: the emery board.
The First Modern Polish
Colored nail polish didn’t enter the scene until the 1920s. Up to that point, nails were tinted with powders and creams, then buffed to create shine — a process that is currently making a comeback. One of the earliest products, “Graf’s Hyglo Nail Polish Paste,” was similar to today’s clear coat.
In 1920, a French makeup artist named Michelle Ménard re-formulated the enamel used on automobiles to make it safe to use on nails. The result: The super glossy lacquer we still use today. Ménard’s formula was wildly popular amongst flappers, partially because cigarette ads always featured glamorous, stylish women with long, lacquered nails.
Ménard is said to have worked for brothers Charles and Joseph Revson and Charles Lachman, the trio of businessmen and chemists who founded Revlon. Revlon sold this nail enamel for several years before expanding into matching lipstick and eventually a full cosmetic line.
The First Faux Nails
In the late 1950s, a dentist accidentally invented acrylic nails. Dr. Frederick Slack broke his nail at work and used some dental acrylic from his lab to mend it back together. When he realized how natural looking the result was, he partnered with his brother to patent the very first acrylic nails.
Acrylics gained even more popularity throughout the next three decades as fashion models and pop icons like Twiggy, Cher, and Donna Summer flaunted long, luxurious oval nails.
Invention of the French Mani
On movie sets, actresses spend a great deal of time resetting their wardrobe, hair, makeup, and nails between scenes. In 1975, Jeff Pink, a makeup artist and founder of nail-polish brand ORLY, found a way to speed things up. He created a natural nail look that wouldn’t upstage any outfit the actress was wearing, so the same polish could be worn with multiple looks in multiple scenes.
Stylists and Hollywood stars fell in love with the style, and it quickly spread throughout the fashion industry too. Its name, the "French manicure," became official once Pink introduced the look to fashion designers and it made its debut on several Paris runways.
The Nail Industry Now
Today, the nail business is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are more than 395,000 nail technicians and 55,000 nail salons in the United States alone. Seasonal nail trends are as celebrated as fashion itself (and sometimes as avant garde as fashion itself). And while many nail salon regulars were home without access to manicurists during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, DIY manicures, nail art, and press-ons surged in popularity. Nail innovation continues to evolve and adapt, but one thing is sure: This time-tested practice will be with us forever, and hopefully so will the punny names given to our favorite polish shades.