The history of nail polish: how did we come up with painting our nails?

There’s nothing better than having beautifully polished nails – whether you go for bright colors, patterns, hair (apparently that’s a thing now!), 3-D shapes, or a plain old French Manicure, having your nails painted can truly boost your confidence. But have you ever wondered where your nail varnish comes from or how long it’s been about? Check out the history of nail polish.


Ancient origins

Many historians have traced nail polish back to ancient China – where it was first created. It’s been reported that nail polish was first invented and used over 5000 years ago by the ruling class in China. In fact, it was a crime for anyone other than those in the ruling or high society to wear nail polish, however many people still tried – yet they were discovered and publicly executed. Those who were permitted to wear the polish chose colors that represented wealth and power and were often seen with silver or gold nail polish on their fingers.

Crossing the pond

After becoming increasingly popular in China, nail polish began to make its way across the pond and into the high societies of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and India. But it became most popular in Egypt, where women and men colored their nails to assert their power and dominance over those who were less privileged. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, nail polish and many other cosmetics disappeared from popular consumption and trade deals.

The Renaissance

Nail polish and other cosmetics found their way back into our lives after the arrival of the Renaissance period, and soon the new trade deals with Europe, India and the Middle East took the product across the world – yet it was still only really associated with those who could afford it and those who still wanted to prove their wealth to others in their country. By the late 18th century, nail polish made its final stop in France.

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The 17th Century

During the 17th Century, members of high society began to memorialize their nail polish within their paintings and self-portraits. Today, we can still see examples of 17th Century artwork that show their patrons with shiny, colorful fingernails. As the artwork became more common, so did the nail polish. Soon, the working-class population were able to start painting their nails, too.

19th and 20th Centuries

As time went on, nail polish and the coloring of nails became more and more prevalent among the general population of people in the United States, Italy, France, and England. At the beginning of the 19th Century, nail polish and nail painting began to play a huge part in everyday life, and the first nail parlors and manicure establishments started to appear in France.