Today when doing a manicure, whether at home or in a beauty salon, only few of us probably think about the history of this procedure. Caring for hands and nails is a phenomenon that is as old as humankind itself, but we have no information about its origins.
At first the reason for nail care was definitely a practical. Later, with the development of ancient civilizations, did the aesthetic point of view come into play. Archaeological finds are a proof that manicures at that time followed fixed rules and reflected the social status of the individual. Really? Yes, indeed.
The oldest evidence of nail care is the Egyptian mummies from around five thousand years BC, who had gilded nails and fingertips dyed with henna. We know that ancient civilizations believed that long nails symbolized wisdom and helped communicate with the deities, so priests used to have perfectly manicured hands. In ancient Egypt, nail color reflected social status – the higher the status, the darker the color. Queen Nefertiti and much later Queen Cleopatra considered the appearance of their own hands and nails to be a reflection of their wealth and status in society. Queen Nefertiti used to rub perfumed oils on her hands and then treated her nails with herbal tonic extracts. Henna coloring gave her nails a ruby color, while Cleopatra preferred a terracotta shade. Both queens believed that the more distinctive nails color, the more power it gives the bearer.
The oldest find of a manicure set in the world, made of gold and dated to 3200 BC, shows that even the inhabitants of ancient Babylonia took care of their nails. Babylonian women painted their nails with gold and silver, men painted them with kohl powder, the color of which, as in ancient Egypt, reflected their social status as well as their warrior experience.
Even the elite in ancient China paid attention to a thorough manicure. The Chinese are said to have been the first to create nail “polish” around 3000 BC from a mixture of egg whites, gelatin, wax and natural dyes. They dipped their nails in this mixture – the longer the better. These long, shiny and colored nails, additionally protected by richly decorated wrought sheaths, were a sign of wealth and social status as well.
Archaeological findings show that small metal knives were used to shorten nails and metal sticks of various shapes were used to clean them.
Medieval Europe was not a fan of decorating nails, prefered temperance and moderation. But even then manicured hands were a sign of wealth. During the Renaissance, European noblewomen took care of the condition of the skin of their hands and the shape of their nails, which they cut short and polished with a suede cloth. At this time, across the ocean, the South American Incas decorated their nails with pictures of eagles.
The first true manicure sets did not appear in Europe until the eighteenth century and were created on the impulse of Louis XVI, who reigned from 1774 to 1792. His wife, Marie Antoinette, cared for her nails with a „lime à ongles“, tool similar to a nail file, made from pumice stone. The pumice stone was carved into a pencil-like shape and was used to whittle and shape the edges of the nail.
At the beginning of the 19th century the well-known orangewood stick for pushing back the cuticles was added to manicure sets, which quickly spread throughout Europe. The nineteenth century was favorable for development of new tools especially designed for nail care. Until its end, hand and nail care consisted mainly of treating with scented oils and polishing the nails with soft cloths. With the development of modern manicure tools, offer of professional hand and nail care appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, initially as a part of beauty salons, then (along with the boom in pedicures) as an independent businesses, accessible to the general public. The emery nail file, created as an alternative to the metal file, allowed gentle treatment of nails and is still very popular and suitable especially for the care of artificial nails.
However, coloring the nails with the help of different mixtures was still tedious and had no durability. A nail color that lasts was just waiting for its chance.
The first nail polish was colorless and appeared in 1907. The change came, somewhat surprisingly, in the 1920s with the development of the automobile industry – women began to paint their nails with car polish. In 1932 the first real colored nail polish saw the light of day – and quickly won the hearts and especially the nails of women. New shades, polish removers, tools, all this offered the possibility to choose any style and complete your outfit with the color of the lacquer. For the first time in history the appearance of nails was not subject to social status, although it was of course subject to fashion trends.
Until the 1930s the French manicure was popular, but with new types of polishes red shades came to the fore and it lasted until the 1950s. In the 1960s pastel colors inspired by the burgeoning hippie culture were in fashion, in the 1970s artificial acrylic nails with a whole palette of colors became a big hit, and in the 1980s distinctive dark red and purple shades were popular. In the 90s bold colors were replaced again by a gentle French manicure and women’s attention turned to tones of red, pink and beige.
Before the end of the last millennium manicure tools expanded to include a nail file made of glass, which is suitable for the treatment of natural nails as it is the most gentle on them, and, moreover, due to the method of production, it is eternal. The new millennium has brought new techniques for the treatment, extension and decoration of nails, which are still developing, creating an endless range of possibilities for how nails can look. Length, shape, color, pattern, decoration – today anything is possible thanks to creative nail art.