A History of Nail Lacquer: Blood Red Nails On Your Fingertips

Christian Dior Ad by René Gruau, circa 1962  (Image via flickr)

Have I ever told you that I am completely fascinated by history?  I’m not talking about the Civil War and Ancient Greece and the Tudor Dynasty and dinosaurs and such (although I do find those fascinating as well).

No. I am talking about the history of nail polish. Yes, nail polish.

Have you ever stopped to think about how it all began? Who was it that sat down one day, looked at their nails, completely transfixed, and said to themselves “dude, I should paint these bitches!” Okay. Maybe that isn’t exactly what they said. Maybe it was more Yoda-like. “Nails I have. Paint them I must.

Whatever. You get the gist.

So.  Who exactly was it? I wish I could tell you.

The Birth of a Trend

The concept of the manicure began in India well over 5,000 years ago with the use of henna as a nail paint.  This practice spread and was adopted by different cultures.  It is believed that the people of southern Babylonia took it a step-further around 4,000 BC and turned to solid gold to achieve the perfect manicure. Very chic.

Now, let’s flash-forward to 3,000 BC China.   The Chinese viewed nail color as a way to indicate wealth and social status.  They did not use henna or gold, but instead created a base mixture of egg whites, gelatin, beeswax and gum Arabic.   The desired shades were created by adding rose, orchid and impatiens petals.  It wasn’t an easy process and the nails had to be soaked in this mixture for a few hours for the color to set.   According to a 15th century Ming manuscript the colors used most often were varying shades of red and black.

Chen Yu Nail Lacquer Ad, circa 1940. (Image via etsy)

As the years passed, the Chinese began painting their nails the colors of the ruling dynasty. During the Chou Dynasty (circa 600 BC), gold and silver dust was used to create the colors worn by nobility.   The nail was also reportedly inlaid with precious stones and complex cloisonné designs.   It seems that nail color was strictly reserved for royalty in those days. Some sources suggest that if a member of the lower class was caught wearing nail polish they would be sentenced to the death penalty.  Harsh.

Thank You, Nefertiti and Cleopatra

Nefertiti and Cleopatra are remembered, among other things, as two of the most beautiful women of their time.   It is no surprise, then, that they were the first to make something as iconic as red nail polish famous!  During their respective reigns, societal hierarchy was indicated by the specific color worn.  The stronger the shade of red, the more power the person possessed.

Although the practice likely existed earlier, sources suggest that Nefertiti, Queen of  Egypt (14th century BC) colored her fingernails a ruby-red color.  Nefertiti and her royal court would use henna (and sometimes even blood!) to color their nails.  Vampy.

Drawing of Cleopatra (Image via Google Images)

Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, continued this trend into the first century BC.  Unlike Nefertiti, it is believed she favored a striking crimson shade.  During her reign women of lower rank were permitted only pale colors as red was reserved for royalty alone.

This fascination with red polish remained constant throughout history and still continues today.

Growing Pains

The next few centuries don’t cast much light on nail polish trends.  You might say that this was a period of growing pains for the art of the manicure. Nevertheless, there are a few notable highlights:

  • Circa 1500: The Inca’s are credited with the invention of nail art.  You didn’t think that began in the 1990s did you?! It is believed that the Inca decorated their fingertips with images of eagles.  Calling Sally Hanson: new nail strip idea?
  • 1500 – 1800s:
    • A look at the portraiture created during this period suggests that nail polish of some sort remained commonplace throughout the centuries.
    • Although largely unconfirmed, it is rumored that the French manicure made its first appearance in 18th century Paris.
    • By the turn of the 19th century, nails were often tinted red with scented oils before being polished and buffed.
    • The focus eventually shifted away from tinted nails to a clean, polished nail that remained the trend through the 1930s.

1909 Ad for Clear Nail Polish (Image via Period Paper)

Car Paint to the Rescue!

The catalyst for the colored nail lacquer we all know and love was the 1920 creation of high-gloss automobile paints.

Yes, you read that correctly. Car Paint.

A French makeup-artist by the name of Michelle Manard had the ingenious idea of adapting these paints for use on nails.  She played around with the formula and developed a glossy lacquer similar to the nail polish we use today.  Her employer, The Charles Revson Company, recognized a goldmine when they saw one and began work to perfect the formula.  Owners Charles and Joseph Revson partnered with a man named Charles Lachman and, using Manard’s original idea, created an opaque, non-streaking nail polish based on pigments instead of dyes.

In 1932, the company changed its name to Revlon and began selling the very first modern nail polish!

Early Revlon Ad, circa 1930s (Image via Google Images)

The first modern manicure was known as the “moon manicure”.  To achieve this look the cuticles were cut, free edges filed into points, and polish was applied to the nail but not to the moon and tip (see ad below).

Cutex Creme Polish Ad, circa 1937 (Image via Period Paper)

Now, this might come as a bit of a shock to you, but the next big thing to influence nail polish was an innovation that had little to do with beauty products!

It’s Technicolor, baby!

The introduction of Technicolor in 1922 affected more than just the film industry.  Shades of gray became a thing of the past and moviegoers were able to see everything in color.  The actors and actresses.  The sets.  The clothing.  The make-up.  As they “oohed and aahed” over this amazing change in cinema, women were suddenly treated to a spectacular sight – Rita Hayworth’s red lips and nails!

Rita Hayworth (Image via ritahayworth.com)

Every woman wanted them.  Revlon, always ahead of the game, realized this and created an extensive line of polishes to meet consumer needs.

Ever since, the trends of the times have continued to mirror the styles seen in films and television:

  • The 1950s:  Red, red and more red.  Scarlet nail polishes with matching lipsticks were all the rage.

    Lucille Ball (Image colorized by ~ajax1946 at deviantart)

  • The 1960s: The focus moved away from reds and turned to paler, pastel shades.

    Elizabeth Taylor (Image via Google Images)

  • The 1970s: Stars like Goldie Hawn, Mia Farrow and Farrah Fawcett made a more natural shade all the vogue.

    Goldie Hawn (Image via Prickly Thorn Sweetly Worn)

  • The 1980s: This was a time of bold, statement-making colors.  Hit shows like Dynasty and Dallas emphasized bright reds and fuchsias while stars like Madonna made neon all the rage.

    Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington (Image via Google Images)

    Madonna with her neon nails (Image via Calamity Jem’s)

  • The 1990s:  This decade was perhaps defined by a single nail color – Chanel’s Rouge Noir/Vamp.  Tipping its hat to Nefertiti and the idea of coloring nails with blood, Vamp was created to emulate the same color as dried blood.  This dark red and black shade became a cult classic that is still highly sought after today.  In addition, acrylic nails, nail art and numerous colors became the norm.

    Uma Thurman wearing Vamp in pulp Fiction (Image via Flaunt Me)

Superstar Status

Today nail polish has become a superstar by its own right.  There are too many colors, finishes, textures, formulas and methods to count.  Instead of going into all of this, I’ll just leave you with one link.  My nail polish bible: All Lacquered Up.  Michelle is a nail polish guru and is always up to date on the latest releases and trends.  You MUST check her out.

In the meantime, you tell me:

Are you a nail-polish fanatic?

What have been some of your crazy nail-color stories?

How many reds do YOU own?



Wikipedia – Nail Polish

MBM Nail Technician Training Academy – History of Nail Care

{ 43 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

  • paul§ September 29, 2013, 5:05 PM

    This is amazing! I love to learn about the history behind things we use everyday, and the history of nail polish doesn’t disappoint. Even though I always admire the way fashion and women’s style evolved over the ’40s-’90s I never think to look to the nails. It’s really come a long way – and I type that as I’m looking at my newly-applied leopard-print Sally Hansen nail strips.

  • Megan August 3, 2013, 7:58 PM

    No problems and thank you for updating. You cant help that people steal them. If you want to use any more of my colorizations feel free. 🙂

  • Megan August 1, 2013, 1:00 AM

    I colorized the picture of Lucy. Fanpop has taken it without crediting me.

  • Beautifully Invisible August 3, 2013, 6:24 PM

    Hi Megan – I am sorry about that! I have updated the credit to link back to your deviantart page. Hope that is OK – you did a beautiful job with the picture!

  • Sky July 21, 2013, 10:59 AM

    Entertaining blog, nicely written. It’s funny, living with your mom and sister you tend to collect an array of reds. It’s a go-to chick color. It’s an essential! 🙂

  • Anne April 12, 2013, 3:13 PM

    Doing research for my website I found you picture of the Dior red nailpolish ad, which you estimated around 1950. According to Vogue http://en.vogue.fr/beauty-tips/buzz-day/articles/50-years-of-dior-nail-polish/14952 Dior started its nail polish line only in 1962. In fact the style of the ad is not really 1950, don’t you agree?

  • Beautifully Invisible April 12, 2013, 3:46 PM

    Hi Anne, you are right. Thanks for bringing that to my attention! The ad is actually from late 1962/early 1963. I’ve updated the post accordingly!

  • Annelou April 12, 2013, 6:34 PM

    Well, we’re here to help each other (ahum). Since I’m at it… I’m not sure but the picture of Lucille Ball looks to me as from the forties/late thirties even and the Hayworth photo is certainly not from the 20’s. Actually, in 1922 she was 4 years old.
    Do you mind if I use some of your info (translated in Dutch) and pictures on my website (mentioning you and your blog of course).
    I read somewhere that in the 20’s and 30’s black nailpolish was considered a normal colour. Do you know anything about that? I have a theorie: I know the filmstars used black lipstick on the film set because it looked better in b/w films than red, maybe they did so too with nailpolish and when people saw this they followed the example.

  • Skye March 19, 2013, 7:10 PM

    Hi i really enjoyed your blog i had no idea that there were so many stages to get the polishes we have today! To answer your questions above i guess i would have to say im a nail polish fanatic but im now moving over to the gel polishes as i chip normal nailpolish straight away! My nail polishes and gel polishes range in colour but i ca honestly say that red is one colour i dont wear alot of to my knowledge i only have 2 red polishes but i have alot of pinks, purples and blues. At the moment i am wearing a gel polish called tidal wave it is a mood polish and changes from green to blue. I hope to read more from you in the future all the best with another great piece

  • Cassie November 14, 2012, 6:04 PM

    Hi there! I just wanted to let you know I found this little run down absolutely fascinating, and referenced it in a blog post I did recently – http://toolazyforlipstick.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/opi-im-not-really-waitress-and.html

  • Kate October 24, 2012, 10:05 AM

    Hi there,
    I’m doing an Extended Project Qualification on how nail polish has developed scientifically for AS level, and was wondering if you could give me a few pointers as to where you got this information from? Would be a great help! Thanks!

    Kate x

  • Kate August 5, 2012, 2:18 PM

    Wow, I thought this was so good! I’ve never really thought about the history of nail polish considering I paint my nails nearly every other day! I, too, love red – I own about 9 or 10 shades! I love painting different patterns on my nails – my favourite (and hardest); leopard print! It looked great too.

    Anyway, this article is so good – well researched too! Loved it!

  • The Cosmic Kahuna June 6, 2012, 4:58 PM

    I have a question — why red?
    I understand red lipstick (to simulate blood-engorged lips when aroused) and red blush (same, as well as healthy appearance), but red nails?

  • Cassie November 14, 2012, 6:08 PM

    I think it’s possibly because red has always been associated with luxury, as far back as we have been able to make things red. The compounds needed to make true red dyes were, for a long time, quite expensive and difficult to come by (they usually used cochineal, made from crushed bugs), and so only the very wealthy could afford clothes in a primary red. I would guess that this association with luxury and decadence is what makes it so sexy.

  • Midnyte Reader April 28, 2012, 11:24 PM

    Fascinating post on the history of nail polish. I love the history of things that we (or at least I) don’t really think about every day.

  • Racheal Alonzo December 20, 2011, 3:32 PM

    Madonna with her neon nails takes me back to the glory days of my teens..hehehehe. Man how I loved the 80’s. I can still remember rocking my bangs..lol

  • Fabienne Jach November 7, 2011, 3:57 PM

    This article rocks, B! Just found it via G&G’s nail tutorial. I had no idea. I’m slowly becoming obsessed with nails now that I actually have learned how to do them right.
    xo, f

  • Heather Fonseca June 4, 2011, 12:09 AM

    Great post! Like you I love history, but I didn’t know anything about the history of nail polish. It’s fascinating.

    I have a number of colors that I use only on my toes, where I prefer bright pinks, oranges and reds. I also like really dark blues and purples. On my nails I’m in love with the new gel nail polishes, which I’ve written a post on. It’ll come out on Monday.

  • Beautifully Invisible June 5, 2011, 3:55 PM

    I definitely learned a lot while I was researching this post. I had no idea the history of polish went back as far as it does!

    I can’t wait to read your post on gel polishes, I know nothing about those. Color me intrigued!

  • Kristin June 1, 2011, 6:30 PM

    I’ve always been a fan of red finger and tootsies. Thank you so much for giving us the skinny on the origins of my fave polish!

  • jessica June 1, 2011, 4:42 PM

    I love this! Great idea for a post and very well researched! Thanks lady! Ill be sharing this one!! 🙂

  • SACRAMENTO June 1, 2011, 3:12 PM

    What a fabulous, and instructive post.
    Would you say that O.P.I is the best there is in the market today, quality-prize?.

  • Cinigallery June 1, 2011, 7:36 AM

    An excellent post! I lile history very much– this post is very classic.. Such an informative and interesting post.

  • Fashnlvr May 30, 2011, 9:27 PM

    Awesome post B!!! I love makeup history too. Now after reading Vahni’s post followed directly by your post I seriously want my nails painted up! I usually go au naturelle on my fingers since chipping is a frequent problem for me. But the toes stay polished most of the time.
    You did a great job writing this up and I seriously enjoyed reading every word!!

  • Ashley May 30, 2011, 6:51 PM

    I learned something new today! Thanks B! And yes, this was even more glorious because of my obsession with nail polish. I actually want to go out and paint my nails a vampy shade of red right now 😉

  • Mode Plus May 30, 2011, 5:09 PM

    I do my mother name (Nefertiti) proud. I didn’t know that she liked painting her nails red. If only I owned a time machine?! I must confess that I have way too much nail polish and use just a fraction of my collection. And yes: it is red or neutral mostly. Must say you writing skills had me at: “Nails I have. Paint them I must.”

  • Eboni Ife' May 30, 2011, 4:43 PM

    Wow, B! If I wasn’t a nail polish fanatic already, I am now! This is fascinating, especially the part about Revlon. I had no idea. Thanks for the history lesson. I am off to read All Lacquered Up now!

  • jamie May 30, 2011, 9:01 AM

    that was very interesting. thank you for sharing this.
    when i was in middle/high school i was addicted to nail polish. i used to make yin yangs on them haha. i havent done my nails in quite sometime but i am still attracted to it. in fact i was at walgreens and saw a brand called sinful colors i think. they are all neon and so pretty. i dont think i’d be brave enough to wear them though.

  • emceefashionista May 30, 2011, 4:07 AM

    wow! very interesting post. have read it from start to finish. Awesome! thanks for sharing.

  • bonita May 30, 2011, 2:15 AM

    ~ * ♥ * ~

    Wow, fascinating post B. ~ I love nail polish and learning about the history of it is super cool. 😀

    bonita of Depict This!
    ~ * ♥ * ~

  • Jamie Rose May 30, 2011, 1:45 AM

    This was such a cool post! I love history – especially little facts about things like nailpolish! Such an informative and interesting post.

  • doc starr May 29, 2011, 3:01 PM

    thanks for the history lesson. i love nail polish and always try to do something different. i’m currently wearing a pale green and before was wearing lavender. i’m glad to find out how it all started.

  • Jamillah May 29, 2011, 10:10 AM

    OMIGOSH!! I thought I could not love you more! I am addicted to nail polish and have really enjoyed reading your take on the history. Yoda language!? Vampy, lol?! LOVE YOU!

    This post is fantastic. Michelle from ALU is actually the first blog I ever started following ever maybe 3/4 years ago…she gives the most authentic reviews and I love her writing. I remember she was out sick for a while and I wrote to her saying there was a huge chasm in my reader b/c she was not around. LOVE her blog.

    I don’t want to even count how many reds I own. I have a very best friend who styles photo shoots and she has given me sooooo many and on top of that I buy. Right, I sure do buy.

    Wonderful job here, B.

  • Rachel May 29, 2011, 3:30 AM

    You see this is why you’ll always be a fantastic blogger – you have the patience to do academic style research. I wish I did!

    Really fascinating post too!

  • Madison May 28, 2011, 11:50 PM

    I love this for so many different reasons. I too am fascinated with history particularly Egyptian history because of my great grandmother… I love and appreciate their intellect during that time and beyond, as many secrets and full processes are still not known how they did it (outside the makeup arena, etc.) Pure brilliance! Thank you for this post B! I’ve always loved and worn polish, but I adore nail varnish so much more now these days, I actually did not own a personal bottle of polish until recently this year. I have several presently … and still counting, though no red as of yet! 🙂

  • Kirstin Marie May 28, 2011, 8:06 PM

    What an awesome post! I love history, and this is fantastic. I took a History of Fashion class in College, and it was the best class ever. I did not know any of this fabulous history. I love nail polish and painting my nails. I usually paint them every week, sometimes more often than that if I have the time.


  • vanessa May 28, 2011, 7:53 PM

    While I’m not a nail polish fanatic it is fun to wear. I actually just bought a fuchsia, white, and coral from wet n wild. I really liked learning about it, and all the trends.

  • Alexis of NorthOnHarper May 28, 2011, 6:01 AM

    Okay—- first, you amaze me with your research skills!

    Second, reading this makes me realize how badly I need a manicure…. that WILL be happening this weekend!

  • blahblahbecky.co.uk May 28, 2011, 4:02 AM

    This is so fascinating! I’ve often wondered about the origin of make up (whoever thought “I know, if I put some black goop on my eyelashes that’ll look amazing!”).

    I quite like the sound of the moon manicure! I also like the current trend of painting one nail, usually the index finger, a completely different colour to the rest.

    Red-wise I think I own 3 – an orangey-red, a dark red (similar the the Chanel Rouge-Noir), and a vivid scarlet. I believe they’re all by No.7.

  • Cate May 28, 2011, 12:37 AM

    1. this is a great post. i’m into the history of things too, but this had never occurred to me.
    2. i never used to be into nail polish. i could never get it on neatly and it always seemed to look wrong on my fingers so i just reserved it for my toes. it wasn’t until i got to college and discovered sally hansen that i really got into polish. now i’m obsessed with it, i’ve perfected my application technique and i’ve got every shade under the sun. (except purple. i can’t seem to find the perfect shade of purple.) right now i’ve got orange on my nails and salmon on my toes. i think i’m going to go black for my next mani/pedi.

  • Kenzi May 27, 2011, 11:10 PM

    What a great post!!! VEERRRRRYYYY Interesting! I love the history of the way fashion and beauty products came to be what they are now. Even watching shows like I Love Lucy they comment on their beauty regime and it makes me wonder.

    One way that I’ve found is easy (and cheap) to do artsy things with your nails is go to the craft section at Wal-Mart or whatever and buy acrylic paints. I found this because my mom is a painter and I was bored one day.. and voila! I started it in high school and would paint all kinds of designs on my fingers & toes!! And then just cover it with a clear coat because it dries matte. Those bottles are usually only a few dollars apiece for each color versus 8 or 9 dollars for polish at wal-mart and that’s not even if you decide to go the more expensive route and go with a high-end polish!


  • Jenmarie May 27, 2011, 10:21 PM

    I have to say, I like your kind of history much better than the kind I studied in school! You’re really kind of amazing for doing all this re-search (oh and for talking like Yoda 😉 ). I’m definitely a nail polish fan. It’s funny I was just commenting on Casee’s nail polish post saying I’ve always painted my toe nails and since I failed at painting my nails even more I would always paint them super light shimmery or glossy colors. Then recently when I won the latest OPI by Nicole’ set from Target I’ve been painting them very often! The newly designed brush works wonders for me!

  • Casee Marie May 27, 2011, 10:08 PM

    This is amazing! I love to learn about the history behind things we use everyday, and the history of nail polish doesn’t disappoint. Even though I always admire the way fashion and women’s style evolved over the ’40s-’90s I never think to look to the nails. It’s really come a long way – and I type that as I’m looking at my newly-applied leopard-print Sally Hansen nail strips.