Nowadays, getting a manicure means nothing more than cutting out some time for yourself to take care of your hands and nails. For some getting their nails done is a social event, while others prefer spending an hour or so in solitude to focus on themselves. Still, nail polish rarely serves a purpose other than the aesthetic one. When I do my nails, it’s because I like the look of my hands with polish on (always a touch of sparkle), and it allows me to create a brief window of time to take care of myself even when everything around me is absolutely hectic. While the aesthetic part of manicures is often one of the main reasons behind getting one today, that wasn’t always the case: today we’ll dive a bit into the historical development of manicures and their original purposes which (spoiler alert) are very different from todays.
It’s nearly impossible to locate the place where hand care originated, but there is clear evidence that the practice was common in several different areas millennia ago.
Archaeological digs have unearthed nail polish dating back to around 6000 B.C. and a multi-piece manicure set that contained clippers and scissors made of solid gold in what used to be Southern Babylon (imagine if the nailfie props were solid gold!!). The discovery did not come as much of a surprise: Babylonian military leaders spent hours before charging into battle having their hair colored and curled and their nails painted black to match their lips, as these were considered efficient ways to frighten the enemy armies. Of course, their products were nowhere close to today’s: they generally used an ancient cosmetic product called kohl (which is still used for eye make-up today!). This practice was also common among the Roman and Egyptian armies.
In Ancient Egypt, however, the use of nail polish was not limited to warriors, but it was rather a way for everyone to symbolize their social status. The Queens and Kings usually preferred dark, bold shades (Queen Nefertiti’s favorite color was red, and Cleopatra’s was a dark rust color), while common people were only allowed to use neutral, pale colors. Nail polish was not a mere decoration: it was a statement about one’s position on the social ladder.
Chinese populations too used nail color as a distinction of rank and dynasty. The ruling classes would make polish out of ingredients like beeswax, Arabic gum, and egg whites, typically choosing pigmented colors like red. Unlike Egypt, nail color was not always allowed for the lower classes. During the ruling of certain dynasties, they could at most wear neutral colors, as wearing the color of royalty was punishable by death.
In Greece, on the other hand, polish was mainly tied to religious practices. Onychomancy (from Greek onychos, 'fingernail', and manteia, 'fortune-telling') was a ritual performed using the fingers of young boys. The boys’ nails were covered with a mixture of soot and oil, then inspected under the midday sun to study the images they reflected. These images provided messages that helped answer questions such as when to attack an enemy or to harvest crops.
Modern-day manicures, however, are a lot more recent than you’d think. The use of nail color grew more and more uncommon in Europe in the Middle Ages, to the point of nearly disappearing. Only in the late 19th and early 20th century manicures became once again popular, with France turning into the hotspot for all things nails. It’s in France that Mary Cobb learned and refined her manicure skills before importing them to New York, where in 1878 she opened the United States’ first nail salon which charged a whopping $1.25 for a manicure (which, in case you’re wondering, had the purchasing power of roughly $32.50 today). Her business thrived in no time, but manicures were still a long way from being affordable for the common person.
The first nail polish as we know it today was developed by Michelle Menard around 1920: she was inspired by the shiny paint applied to cars to formulate a glossy nail polish formula that would mimic it. At the time, the French make-up artist worked for the Charles Revson Company, that you might know today as Revlon. Despite having the original idea, Revlon cannot be considered the first brand to have launched nail polish, as it started mass producing it only in 1932. The first producer who made polish widely accessible was Cutex, which launched its first complete line in 1925.
In the 1920s bold and dark polishes (generally used in half moon manicures) were reclaimed by flappers as a sign of rebellion, but they eventually became widely accepted throughout the 20th century. Nail art became popular as soon as household nail polish did, and new techniques and ideas developed throughout the years: the classic French manicure, for example, was invented in 1976 by Jeff Pink, an American make-up artist.
The progress made in the 1900s is the main engine that allowed us to have the variety and spectrum of choice of nail polish we have today, but manicures have ancient roots. Whether you stick to traditional nail polish or prefer other long-lasting solutions, you’ll want to be grateful to women like Mary Cobb and Michelle Menard for gifting us with such versatile and accessible products (which are not made of, you know, egg whites or soot).