Nail polish is a lacquer used to paint nails to protect them and make them look more attractive. These days they come in liquid form packaged in cute bottles with brushes attached to the caps and are available in practically every color. But although nail polish as we know it today was an invention of the twentieth century, some forms of nail covering can be dated back to 3000 B.C. in ancient Egypt and China.
Nail varnish originated in China in 3000 B.C.. The Chinese used a mixture made with egg whites, beeswax, Arabic gum and gelatine to color their nails. Another recipe they used was created by mixing orchid, mashed rose, impatiens petals and alum. The mixture was then applied on nails for a few hours, leaving a stain on them. While the Chou Dynasty (600 B.C.) used gold and silver on their nails, for centuries before that royalty colors were red and black.
Around the same time, the Egyptians started coloring their nails with reddish-brown stains derived from henna. In their society, nail color signified social order, money and prosperity. The upper classes wore shades of red (Cleopatra painted her nails with a deep rust red, while Nefertiti preferred ruby red), while the lower classes were instead allowed to wear only pale shades.
It is known that Incas used to paint images of eagles on their nails. Some Native Americans also sported colored nails as well although it’s not clear how this started.
In the 19th century, women used to polish their nails with a cloth and oil which would give them a shiny appearance and a red tint. In alternative, they could also use tinted powders and creams on their nails to color them, before buffing for a shiny look.
Modern Nail Polish
Modern nail polish is a by-product of car paint. Car paint was invented in the 1920’s and it inspired Michelle Menard, a French makeup artist who was working for the Charles Revson company, who wondered if nail polish could be created using the same technique. The Revson company, that had then changed its name to Revlon, started selling the first nail polish in hair and beauty salons in 1932 and in 1937 the product become available in department store and drugstores.
But up to the first part of the 20th centuries, women in America wouldn’t wear any makeup cos those that did were labelled with a bad reputation. It was only in the 1940’s that “average” women started emulating the actresses that sported painted nails in their movies and nail polishes sales began to increase. These days men have started wearing nail polishes too and companies like Man Glaze and BB Couture have released nail varnishes targeted to them!