History of Nail Polish

nail polish history

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.

Ancient 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.

Ancient Egypt

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.

Later centuries

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!

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  1. says

    I was born and raised Chinese and I personally have never heard of Chinese people using crushed orchid or rose for their nail (they are neither “juicy” nor they stain well), instead, they use garden balsam (It is a type of impatiens, but there are probably 10000+ species in the class) and alunite. The paste is applied on nails, wrapped by leave and secured for 5 hours.

    Beside that the nitrocellulose in nail polish is a byproduct of explosive invented in the 1830s, and there have been clean/lightly colored nail polish since the turn of 20s century. The car paint “inspired” the production of opaque colored nail polish.

    Oh I see you got your info from wikipedia (I personally think the article you get your information is a bit incomplete at least and iccorete to be truthful. ) It’s fun to know about some beauty history but sometime online and wikipedia articles are not exatcly the best place to go for. (If you see the book in a University, at least you know the person did research to make sure that at least there is some proof or sources.)
    .-= Citrine´s last blog ..Bag Raider Pictures from Flickr =-.

  2. beautifulwithbrains says

    Citrine, thanks for your useful comment but actually I didn’t get my info from Wikipedia. I rarely do get info from there (and when I do I double and triple check it as you never know) as most of the time it is incomplete when not just wrong, but after checking I can see why you got that impression. I got this info from several other website (I can’t remember which ones now as I wrote this last week but I can do a search if you want) and they all stated the same info. It is probably still incomplete but mostly true, at least so I thought or I would have never posted it in the first place.

    Maybe I should have gone to a library but the one in my city is small so doubt it would have any info on the subject. Not to mention that you can’t browse books freely in Italian libraries but you have to ask the staff and I hate that. They don’t always do throughout searches and give useful info.

    You’re right about nitrocellulose and at the beginning I was gonna include a more throughout history of nail polish and talk about the main ingredients used etc but 1) it would have been too long so I’ll probably do another post about that and 2) I feared it would have been too complicated or boring. So I thought I’d just post a brief history of modern nail polish instead.

    Thanks for letting me know about how Chinese stain their nails. I hadn’t heard that before and it’s really interesting to know. :) Maybe orchid and rose were used in ancient times and were later abandoned for garden balsam?

  3. beautifulwithbrains says

    Dao, I rarely use them too as I have fragile nails that break all the time so no nail polish for me :( I’m glad you enjoyed the post, I love learning about the history of beauty products too.

  4. says

    I am sorry that I accused you copying from Wiki. What I did was, I just copy and paste one sentence (the one I think the info is incorrect) of your post (professors told us that’s how the detect plagiarism) and it pretty much yield an exact match from Wiki as well as several other websites.

    That’s why I assumed that you got if from Wiki (which is the most credible from the bunch) It just seems to me that all of them simply copied from Wiki then copy off each other…Of course, I am not asking you to go to library just for a single post. I am just not fond of the fact that people were presenting some pieces of information about Chinese history/culture that’s never been heard by Chinese, never recorded by a Chinese nor can be found in Chinese encyclopedia (So I guess a random European visitor knew more about Chinese history compared to Chinese scholars?)
    .-= Citrine´s last blog ..Strawberry and Roses =-.

  5. beautifulwithbrains says

    Citrine, that’s ok, don’t worry. I understand why you thought so and thanks for letting me know one of the sentences from my post is very similar to sentences in other articles online. I do my research and then try to write the info using my own words, but looks like sometimes I fail. It wasn’t intended obviously, I would never just copy and paste from another site and if I did, I would cite the source like I did in the past, but I shall be more careful in the future.

    I guess you’re right and some of my sources did quote some of the info on wiki, so you weren’t that wrong to think I copied from there too after all.

    Of course, I don’t know more about Chinese than you or people raised Chinese and I didn’t mean to imply that. Sorry if I did or if the post offended you, it wasn’t my intention. I just assumed that with so many resources reporting the same info, someone must have done their research. But I’ll be more selective of sources in the future.

  6. da'sha says

    hello bloggers, I am a student and i am doing a research project on nail polish for national history day,this is a very helpful post and i hope it helps many others but i need more historic information. Do you have any suggestions for other sites on the history on nail polish. Thanks for creating such a helpful website and i hope you have open suggestions,going to lunch now byee.byee.

  7. beautifulwithbrains says

    Da’sha, thanks. I’m glad I could help and good luck with your project.

    Well, you can try and get a hold of this book, it should have some information on the history of nail polish:

    Meyer, Carolyn. Being Beautiful: The Story of Cosmetics From Ancient Art to Modern Science. William Morrow and Company, 1977.

    As for online resources, I found a few blog posts about the subject but they are mainly saying the same things I did. I didn’t find any that dicussed the subject in a broader, more in-depth way, sorry.

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