From 3200 B.C. to 2016: The Fascinating History of Nail Polish

Updated 09/23/16

Long before the UV-assisted, long-lasting manicure we all now know and love as "gels," there were henna manicures, kohl manicures, and manicures that signified class status. Yes, nails have been a part of the beauty world for centuries. Scroll through to find out how we went from dip-dyed fingertips to #ManiMonday!

3200 B.C. : Men Wore It First

Warriors in Babylon would spend hours having their hair curled and lacquered and their nails manicured and colored before going off to battle. Their lips were often tinted to match their nails. 

Nicole Kliest

3000 B.C. : Using the Wrong Color Could Get You Killed

The Chinese used nail color as a distinction of class and dynasty. The upper classes wore the colors of the ruling dynasty, often highly pigmented colors like red. Nail color was not allowed for everyone, however. During certain dynasties, the lower classes could wear pale colors, for others none at all was permitted. Wearing the color of royals was punishable by death.  

Wikimedia Commons

60 B.C. : Cleopatra’s Color of Choice Was Red

Using henna, Cleopatra was among the first to apply color only to the nail, rather than whole hand. She preferred the blood red.  

Hilton Midtown Hotel NYC

1878: The First Manicure Salon Opened in Manhattan

Mary Cobb first learned the art of the manicure in France. She then redeveloped the process and brought it to the United States. She opened America's first manicure parlor in Manhattan called Mrs. Pray's Manicure. She also developed her own line of products and created one of the first at-home manicure guides. But her biggest contribution to the industry was inventing the emory board.   

Courtesy of Cutex

1914: Cutex Manufactured the First Modern Nail "Tint"

Cutex, a brand that started with cuticle extract (hence the name), invented several types of nail polish: cake, paste, powder, and stick. Cake and powder remained the most popular until liquid came along. By 1925, liquid polish was virtually the only type of polish on the market.

1920s–1930s: Revlon Started as a Nail Polish Brand

Revlon Nail Enamel $4

Makeup artist Michelle Menard wanted to create a glossy nail lacquer like what you would see on cars. She eventually perfected her formula, which gained popularity among flappers, and the company evolved into the cosmetic house Revlon. Revlon sold its nail enamel in a variety of colors at drugstores and department stores for several years before expanding into lipstick and more makeup.

1950s: Acrylic Nails Were Invented in a Dentist’s Office

Dentist Frederick Slack broke a nail at work. To repair it, he used aluminum foil and dental acrylic from his lab. He fashioned a faux nail that looked realistic, which prompted the dentist to collaborate with his brother to create (and patent) acrylic nails. 


1976: The French Manicure Debuted in Paris

Jeff Pink, the American makeup artist and founder of Orly, needed a manicure that wouldn't compete with multiple costume changes. So he created the versatile French manicure. It debuted on the runways in Paris and became an instant phenomenon. 

1980s: Essie Becomes a Household Name

Essie Jelly Apple $9

Essie Weingarten developed her collection of nail polishes in the early '80s. The polishes quickly gained popularity, and in 1983, Essie garnered what was one of the first celebrity endorsements of a nail polish brand. Joan Rivers mentioned her nail color of choice, Jelly Apple, on air, and soon Essie was a household name. 

1994: Chanel Sells Out of the Instant Classic "Vamp"

Chanel Le Vernis Longwear Nail Colour $28

In the movie Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman's nails were painted in Chanel's Rouge Noir (aka "Vamp"), a color created to mimic the appearance of dried blood. The shade, like the movie, instantly became a cult classic. It was impossible to keep on shelves, and to this day, still remains one of the most requested Chanel products of all time. 

Present: Social Media Changes the Nail Industry

Today, nails are a multibillion-dollar industry, and social media is only spurring on that growth. Ninety-two percent of nail artists are on Pinterest, and the fastest going social media platform is Snapchat (up 32% from last year). 

What surprised you most in the history of nail polish? Tell us below!

Related Stories