Products like rouge and kohl have evolved over time, benefitting from technological developments, while essentially producing the same effects: drawing emphasis to the eyes or brightening the face. Nail polish is a different story. More than any other type of cosmetic, it really only came into being in the twentieth century, through the advent of the compound nitrocellulose. But, however modern that may seem, nails have been a focus for thousands of years, and today’s intricate nail art can be traced back to early homemade stains and lacquers and techniques for buffing and polishing.
The very first nail paints appeared in ancient Egypt, where plant-based henna was used to stain nails yellow or orange. Colored nails signified social status, and the deep, dark shades created from kermes (a dye made from crushed beetles) or similar substances were restricted to royalty and their courtiers. Nefertiti’s preferred nail color was reportedly ruby red, while Cleopatra’s nails were stained a rust-red hue. Nail painting was also practiced by the ancient Babylonians, who considered well-kept nails to be a sign of civilization. Even Babylonian soldiers were reported to have painted their nails before going into battle (archaeologists have uncovered intricate manicure sets at the royal tombs at Ur).
In Iran, henna was used to stain nails and by both men and women to strengthen and color hair (including beards). In some cases, lime and salt ammonia were added to the henna to darken the patterns. Henna was also used to paint intricate patterns on the hands and feet as a mandatory part of Iranian wedding ceremonies a practice still popular today. China was a crucial and early adopter of nail painting, too. The colors used changed from one dynasty to the next, with silver and gold preferred during the Zhou dynasty (c. 600 BC). By the Ming dynasty, red and black were the colors of choice, made from a blend of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum arabic, with flower petals (mashed and used with alum) added as the colorant, and the whole lot mixed together to make a basic nail polish mixture that would be applied and left to dry for several hours. In Celtic Britain, rosy nails were prized and a red-hued effect was achieved by coating nails with a mash of madder root that was left, to sit for a while to stain them Cutex launched in 1911 in response to the growing nail care market.
Although we know that nail colorants were used from these early periods, there’s little mention of them in literature until the turn of the ninth century, when nails were tinted with scented red plant oils and polished or buffed with a chamois cloth to make them shine. It may be that drawing attention to nails went out of vogue, or that the fashion for gloves made it redundant, as nail colorants weren’t prevalent again until the Victorian era. Fitting in with the subdued ethos of the period, a polished rather than painted look was achieved by massaging tinted powders and creams into the nails, then buffing them until they became shiny something that is still done today. The word manicure was actually the name given to the practitioner, now known as a manicurist or nail technician. Manicures appear to have originated in France, where the art of nail beautification was similar to that of today, and involved clipping, shaping, polishing, and buffing. Many nineteenth-century cooksecrets contained recipes for making nail paint. Nail polish was mixed by manicurists and was mainly composed of oxide of tin, carmine, lavender, and bergamot oil, and was applied with camel-hair brushes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, commercially available polishing powders started to appear, like Graf’s Hyglo Nail Polish Paste, dating back to 1871, which was also available in a set that contained Nail White, Cuticle Remover, and Nail Polish Paste (which was pink). New nail products caused excitement, as shown by a piece in US Vogue in July 1909, which remarked giddily, It is quite in the spirit of Columbus that I announce a new discovery in nail polish. In the United States, Cutex started its life in 1911 producing cuticle-removing liquid, but soon expanded to include nail pastes and lacquers along with other manicure products. The first nail polish patent was granted in 1919,13 and liquid polish subsequently began to appear. In the 1920s, nitrocellulose use grew thanks to the burgeoning automobile industry, as the speed with which it dried allowed cars to be lacquered rapidly. And the use of nail polish grew too, although more slowly. Like blush, nail polish was meant to be imperceptible, and until around 1930, it was available only in shades of pale pink. Then in 1930, Princess de Faucigny-Lucinge painted her nails crimson and a trend was born. Red nails became de rigueur, and in the early thirties, there was a trend for painting the nail in the middle only, leaving the half moon at the bottom and tip clear, known as a moon manicure.
But it would take one man with an eye for trend to really bring nail polish to the masses: Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, whose competitor Helena Rubinstein referred to cuttingly as the nail man. Revlon was formed in 1932 and soon created a nail polish similar to the one he had been selling. Revson treated nail colors like fashion, understanding that his company needed to introduce new colors with the seasons, as a fashion house would with clothes.
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