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

girls hanging out painting nails

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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. It's no surprise that nails have been a significant part of the beauty world and industry for centuries. Keep scrolling through to find out how the history of nail polish has evolved; it's truly fascinating!

Where It All Began

It's claimed that warriors in Babylonia during 3200 B.C. would spend hours having their hair curled and lacquered and their nails manicured and colored before going off to battle. The purported ingredient of choice: kohl. The colors of their nails may have signified their class. For example, black nails may have been considered higher rank whereas green fingernails… not so much.

The Mark of Class


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It's said that in 3000 B.C., the Chinese used nail color as a distinction of rank and dynasty. The upper classes may have used ingredients like beeswax, Arabic gum, and egg whites for nail color, while those of the ruling regime may have worn highly pigmented colors like red. During certain dynasties, wearing the color of royals may have been punishable by death. So basically, if you were caught wearing the wrong nail color assigned to your class, you'd be in major trouble.

Cleopatra's Pick

It's purported that Cleopatra decided to use henna on her nails instead of applying it in intricate designs to the entire hand as was custom (and still is in many cultures today). She would dip each finger in henna, coating just the nail portion. Her go-to color of choice? Blood red. While this may not be proven, women were using henna to dye their fingernails as far back as 5000 BC.

The First-Ever Nail Salon

Mary E. Cobb first learned the art of the manicure in France. She then redeveloped the process and brought it to the United States. In 1878, Cobb opened the first-ever nail salon titled "Mrs. Pray's Manicure." Little did she know, it would be one of the most popular and most requested beauty services in history.

She then went on to open the first manicure parlor in America, along with developing her line of products and creating the very first at-home manicure guide. And she didn't stop there; her most significant contribution to the industry was inventing the emery board.  

The Birth of Big Brands

applying cuticle oil

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In 1911, Cutex launched with just one product: an extract for softening cuticles around the nail bed. Fast forward to 1925, Cutex went on to create what we know today as the widely popular liquid nail polish. The brand has since grown to be a beauty empire.

In 1920, makeup artist Michelle Menard wanted to create a glossy nail lacquer that mimicked the shine on automobiles. She eventually perfected her formula, which gained popularity among flappers, and in 1932 she launched the notorious cosmetic house known today as Revlon. The company sold its nail enamel in a variety of colors at drugstores and department stores for several years before expanding into lipstick and eventually an entire makeup line.

A Genius Invention

In 1957, dentist Frederick Slack broke a nail at work, and to repair it, he used aluminum foil and dental acrylic from his lab, according to Slack's brand NSI. As it turns out, he designed a faux nail that looked entirely too realistic. It prompted the dentist to collaborate with his brother to create—and then later patent—what we know today as acrylic nails. 

The Debut of a Classic

french manicure

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Jeff Pink, the American makeup artist and founder of Orly, needed a manicure that wouldn't compete with multiple costume changes. So according to Orly, in 1975, he created the versatile French manicure. Little did he know, it would be one of the most popular styles of manicures ever invented. It debuted on the runways in Paris and became an instant phenomenon. 

Famous Shades

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

In the 1994 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. The nail hue became impossible to keep on shelves, and to this day, it remains one of the most requested Chanel products of all time. 

chanel 18 rouge noir nailpolish
Chanel Nail Polish in Rouge Noir $30.00

Today, nails are a multibillion-dollar industry and still growing fast, and social media continues to spur that growth. Many nail artists are on Pinterest, along with the fastest growing and most-utilized platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

Shop some of our favorite nail polish picks below!

Essie nail polish in shade mademoiselle
Essie Nail Polish in Mademoiselle $9.00
OPI nail polish in shade Suzi needs a loch-smith
OPI Nail Polish in Suzi Needs a Loch-smith $11.00
smith and cult nail polish in shade soul purpose
Smith & Cult Nail Polish in Soul Purpose $18.00

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