From 3200 B.C. to 2019: The Fascinating History of Nail Polish

Updated 05/31/19

Getty Images 

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 actually signified class status. It's no surprise that nails have been a significant part of the beauty world and industry for centuries. Scroll through to find out how we went from dip-dyed fingertips to the famous Instagram #ManiMonday trend!

It all began in 3200 B.C., Babylonia when warriors in Babylon would spend hours having their hair curled and lacquered and their nails manicured and colored before going off to battle. The ingredient of choice? Kohl. The colors of their nails signified their class, black nails were considered higher class, and green nails, lower class. Their lips were often tinted to match their nails. Mind blown, really.

Getty Images 

In 3000 B.C., Chinese used nail color as a distinction of class and dynasty. The upper classes would use ingredients like beeswax, arabic gum, and egg whites for nail color, and those of the ruling dynasty often wore 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. So basically, if you were caught wearing the wrong nail color assigned to your class, you'd be in major trouble.

Can you believe that?

Wikimedia Commons

The ever famous and influential Cleopatra decided to use Henna on her nails, instead of applying it to the entire hand in intricate designs which is something that's still prevalent today. She would dip each finger in Henna, coating just the nail portion and her go to color of choice? Blood red.

 Getty Images

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, she 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 own line of products and created the very first at-home manicure guide. She didn't stop there, seeing as her biggest and most influential contribution to the industry was inventing the emory board.



Cutex, a brand that started in 1911 with just one product , a cuticle extract for softening cuticles around the nail bed (hence the name) and has since grown to be a beauty empire, 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 nail polish on the market. Can you imagine painting your nails with cake powder?

Revlon Nail Enamel $7

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.

 Getty Images

In 1957, dentist Frederick Slack broke a nail at work, and to repair it, he used aluminum foil and dental acrylic from his lab (genius if you ask me). He fashioned a faux nail that looked so realistic, it prompted the dentist to collaborate with his brother to create and then later patent what we would know today as acrylic nails. 


Jeff Pink, the American makeup artist and founder of Orly, needed a manicure that wouldn't compete with multiple costume changes. So in 1976 he created the versatile French manicure. Little did he know, it would be one of the most popular styles of manicures every invented. It debuted on the runways in Paris and became an instant phenomenon. 

Essie Rock The Runway $12

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. The late Joan Rivers mentioned her nail color of choice, "Jelly Apple", on air, and quickly soon after Essie was a household name. "Jelly Apple" is no longer available, but the shade pictured below is the closest to the original.

Chanel Le Vernis Longwear Nail Colour $28

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, still remains one of the most requested Chanel products of all time. 


Today in 2019, nails are a multibillion-dollar industry and still growing fast, and social media continues to spur that growth. Ninety-two percent of nail artists are on Pinterest, along with the fastest growing and most utilized platforms Instagram and Snapchat.

Scroll down to shop some of the nail shades we currently love!

Essie Glazed Days $9
Essie Claim to Fame $9
Essie In Full Swing $9

Related Stories