The history of nail polish you never knew about!

From ancient Chinese high society to Cleopatra

Nail polish as we know it has gone through quite the metamorphosis from Cleopatra’s days. With a rich history spanning back as far as ancient china- our little bottles of long-lasting colour are extremely new-world in comparison. The history of nail polish is something we previously have only touched a surface of, but there is over 5000 years of history to explore.

drawing of a chinese geisha

The history of nail polish begins in ancient China, in its earliest form it was worn by the rulers and those in high society as a symbol of their wealth and power. Early nail polish was a mixture of (definitely not vegan) beeswax, gelatin and egg white dyed with orchids or roses, that was left on the nails for a number of hours leaving a stain. Reds and blacks were very popular colours according to ancient manuscripts, as well as adding in metallic dust of silver and gold. Stained nails were such a symbol of the wealthy and powerful, it was a crime for anyone else to wear, can you believe it!

The techniques of the ancient Chinese then travelled across to India, Africa and the Middle East. Egyptians started colouring their nails with henna. Cleopatra used plant extracts to die her nails a deep blood red, and other mummified Pharaohs were found with henna stained nails. It was popular for women across India and Africa to dye their fingertips with henna as an adornment.

old nail lacquer poster

Nail polish didn’t make its way across into Europe until much later, arriving in the late 18th century with trade deals from India and the Middle east. It was still very much associated with the wealthy at this stage, until the first nail salon opened in the late 19th century in Paris.

Nail polish still hadn’t developed into its liquid form however. Powders and oils were rubbed into the nails and buffed away, leaving a soft pink colour, or a red for the brave! Princess de Faucigny-Lucinge was a style icon with her crimson nails.

collage of images of first nail salon in New York, her owner Mary Cobb and first Christian Dior nail polish poster.

It was only once nail polish travelled across to the US, that advances in nail technology like today’s offerings were developed. The first US nail salon was opened in Manhattan in 1878 by a woman called Mary Cobb. Her $1.25 buff and shine manicures set her up as a successful female entrepreneur- a girl boss even!

The invention of modern day nail polish wasn’t far off at this point in the vast history of nail polish. During World War 1, the US seized German chemical patents- leading to the release of Nitrocellulose onto the American market. The ingredient was then included in car paint in the 1920s, inspiring a French makeup artist Michelle Menard, who was working for the Charles Revson company at the time, to release the first liquid nail polish, essentially an off-shoot of car paint. The Charles Revson company was renamed as Revlon, and became the leader in the cosmetics industry, but not without reportedly having issues with the strong chemicals ruining their customer’s nails.

collage of posters for nail polish publicity

Nail technologies continued to advance throughout the 1950s with the arrival of nail wraps and acrylic nails. Acrylic nails were accidentally developed by a dentist. The materials used to fill cavities in teeth became false nails!

Fast forward to the current day, and there are endless options when it comes to the adornment of colour to our nails. There is a vast spectrum of products suited for every individual’s desires and aesthetic. At one end of the spectrum is peel-off nail polishes that last a few hours on the nails and the other end is acrylic nails, allowing clients whatever shape, length and colour they desire for several weeks without chipping, (though they contain a lot of chemicals to do so).

Where do we sit along the spectrum? We believe we have struck the perfect balance. Our nail polish is free of all the harmful ingredients that can negatively affect your health (think those that were found in the car-paint-esque formulations!) but with good application and care, can last you upwards of a week on the nail. The history of nail polish is 5000+ year tale, but one that is fascinating! We wonder which of our reds Cleopatra would have worn? Maybe Tempest or even Florence?

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