10 Things About Nail Polish

Today is Mother’s Day, my vegetable garden has been planted, and I sprained my calf and cannot do my interval workouts for a few days, so I decided to turn to something else that brings me peace–painting my nails. I’ve always liked to paint my nails, but quite frankly I’m not great at it, so I don’t do it terribly often. But I recently discovered nail stamping, and now with just a swipe and a press I can showcase my love for books, pretty flowers, Sci-Fi and Fantasy franchises, or even create dinosaur designs that my kids love. There’s nothing quite like stamping a triceratops on your nails and then having your three-year-old look upon you with awe and declare, “Mama, you SO beautiful.”

But where did the tradition of painting our nails even come from? The answer is actually pretty hard to pin down other than to call it widespread cultural appropriation. I did give it the old college try, though, and learned several interesting things along the way. So here are 10 things you might not know about nail polish.

  1. While some sources claim the tradition of pigmenting one’s nails began circa 3,000 BC in China, others claim there is evidence of soldiers from Babylon using it circa 3,200 BC. Still others point to mummified pharaohs with pigmented nails and say it all began in Egypt. However, I find the most plausible place of origin from all the different arguments to be India. Henna had been used to create intricate designs on the hands for thousands of years. And from India, the use of such a pigment could easily have geographically expanded to China, Babylonia, and even Egypt where–spoiler alert–henna was used to pigment the nails of the upper classes.
  2. While Babylonian soldiers used kohl to color their nails and lips before going into battle (there is also archaeological evidence that they also spent time curling their hair before heading out, which leads me to call BS on many modern gender norms), Chinese women painted their nails to show their class. Women of the upper class, and especially of the royal family, wore specific colors that women of lesser classes were not allowed to wear. They also created intricate designs and even wore long, claw-like tips to protect long nails on two fingers of each hand. It was to show others they didn’t have to use their hands for manual labor.
  3. During the Rennaisance, the trend of coloring nails and then buffing them to a shine spread to Europe. However, the available colors were few and sometimes toxic. And in Victorian England, for example, simple, clean, nude nails were seen as a sign of moral purity and good upbringing (nevermind mind the abrasives and processes they used to make their nails look “naturally clean”).
  4. Towards the end of the 19th century, French women began re-popularizing the use of colored pigment on nails. And the turn of the century saw suffragettes in both England and North America don make-up and colored nail pigment to outwardly showcase their rebellion against the status quo. Some went so far as to wear bloomers (gasp) or even, dare I say it, pants. The horror.
  5. In 1916 Cutex developed a clear lacquer to paint over nails to make them shine so that women no longer had to spend hours breathing in chemicals from the abrasives they used to buff their nails to a shine. It revolutionized the nail industry. Mary E. Cobb studied how French salons manicured the nails of their clients, both men and women alike–a tradition dating back to King Louis Philippe. She also spent years watching her husband who was a podiatrist and a cosmetics manufacturer. She divorced her husband, struck out on her own, moved to New York City, and opened the first nail parlor in America. “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” was the official name of the service and it was a runaway hit.
  6. In the 1920s, Michelle Menard watched the automotive industry develop shiny, brightly colored paints for cars. She made some changes to the formula, and voila, modern liquid nail polish was born. Of course, her employer owned the rights to her invention and patented it himself. And in 1932 Ms. Menard’s invention flooded the shelves. We can still find it there today, but alas Ms. Menard’s name isn’t on it. Instead, it bears the name of the company started by the man who patented her formula: Revlon.
  7. Since 1932 was still during the Great Depression, it might make you wonder how a company based on a luxury cosmetic item could survive. The answer is that it wasn’t that much of a luxury. A bottle of nail varnish in the early 1930s was about thirty-four cents in the United States. While that still put it out of reach for large swaths of the population, many women deemed it an item worth buying to lift their spirits during tough times. However, during WWII as many women entered the workplace and embodied Rosie the Riveter, painted nails became impractical. Women didn’t give up painting their nails altogether, it just became more popular to paint them with clear lacquer.
  8. In 1957 Frederick Slack changed the nail game again. Dr. Slack was a dentist who had the unfortunate experience of badly chipping a nail during his workday. A resourceful gentleman, he used tin foil and dental acrylic to create a fake nail to cover his chipped one. It looked so real and so natural that he decided to collaborate with his brother to turn his invention into a marketable venture. The result? Acrylic nails. It would still take until the 1970s for acrylics to become widely available.
  9. With strong colors once again en vogue by the 1970s, it sometimes made it difficult for make-up artists and designers to find a way to paint the nails so they wouldn’t clash with clothing during runway shows with multiple wardrobe changes. In 1976, Jeff Pink (who founded Orly) created a new type of nail design that wouldn’t clash with the outfits and was understated but adored the moment it debuted in a Paris fashion show. Today we call it the French manicure.
  10. Today the nail polish industry is a multi-billion dollar market and lacquers, varnishes, dips, powders, and polishes come in different price ranges, color schemes, and even ingredients. The most expensive bottle of nail polish available though is created by crushing black diamonds which gives the formula a one of a kind sparkle. Of course, at $250,000 there would need to be a genie in that bottle before I got too close to it.

From ancient traditions to battlefields to politics to wartime factories, the history of nail polish gives an interesting insight into changing values and ideals for women. With each new trend or available product line coinciding with women taking a step away from the societal norms of their day, it is an art that tells a story all its own. A sign of the struggle for equality. Beautiful war paint.

Maybe that will clear out the pandemic induced cobwebs and spark an idea for a new world to build. If not, don’t beat yourself up. The creative juices will flow again at some point. Until then, cut yourself some slack. You’re in the middle of a major historic event. It’s okay to be off your game (I’m really saying this to me because I haven’t written any salvageable material since school closed).

As for me, I’m going to enjoy my Mother’s Day and paint my nails.

Happy Mother’s Day to you. Whether you are a pet mom, a biological mom, an adoptive mom, a step-mom, a pregnant mom, a legal guardian, caretaker, or someone desperately wanting to become a mom, Happy Mother’s Day.