The History Of Manicures Is Way More Interesting Than You Thought It Could Be

Manicured nails are a fixture in most female beauty routines. Nowadays, manicured and painted nails are so commonplace it’s easy to think that people have always worn them. This isn’t the case. The ways people have fashioned their nails throughout history have constantly evolved. The messages that were sent to the people who saw painted and manicured hands have likewise evolved, sometimes sending out very different signals depending on the era.

With such a rich and fluid history, the only way to tackle the history of manicures is to go right to the very beginning.

Here’s a look at the manicure throughout civilization:

3500 B.C. – 1781 B.C.

Manicures date back right to the very start of civilized humanity. Ancient Babylonian men colored their nails with kohl according to their class. Upper class men wore black, while lower classes wore green.

1300 B.C. – 1st Century B.C.

In Egypt, Cleopatra and Queen Nefertiti stained their nails with henna to signify high class. The bolder the color, the more powerful you were. Both Cleopatra and Nefertiti were known to favor red shades. Cleopatra’s was described as being blood red, while Nefertiti’s was closer to ruby.

Additionally, many pharaohs received henna manicures during the mummification process, so they could go into the afterlife with a strong symbol of their power.   

600 B.C-1644 A.D.

In China, the Zhou dynasty royals painted their nails the colors of gold and silver. Eventually, reds and blacks became more popular.

Members of the Ming dynasty used egg-white and vegetable dye to tint their nails. Royals also used gum arabic, gelatin and beeswax as nail polish. It was also during this time that the first artificial nails were developed. Noblewomen exclusively wore fake long nails to signify that they did not have to do manual labor.


The 19th century began with women maintaining short, smartly fashioned almond nails. Colored nail polish was a rarity, with women instead opting to use a variety of oils to give their hands a natural shine.

However, the invention of the nail file in 1830 saw this all change. For the first time longer fashioned manicures could be made.

Also, 1878 saw the U.S. open its first manicure salon. Mary E Cobb was the owner. She had studied nail care in France. 

’20s and ‘30s

Women colored their nails with high gloss car paint. And Revlon launched a revolutionary line of polishes that used pigments instead of dyes.

For the first time, half moon techniques took off, due to the popularity of the flapper scene in the U.S.

’40s and ‘50s

Prior to these decades, while nail filing had been performed by the masses for over 100 years, painting nails was considered a luxury only affordable to the wealthy. Despite the Great Depression, women started to adopt nail polish like never before. However, after World War 2, the price of polish dropped significantly. People could adopt a cleaner, flashy look to their fingers.  

While a chemical company had discovered acrylic paints in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s, it first became commercially available in the US in the ‘50s, leading to the invention of acrylic nail polish.

As films moved to color, red nails became popular.

’60s and ‘70s

By the ‘60s, Acrylic nail polishes became more accepted. Red nails quieted down in favor of more mellow shades. These mellow shades were indicative of women becoming more impactful in the US workforce, with shades blending in with office dress codes.

The ‘70s saw a diversification in nail polish trends. Some opted for ‘50s style reds, while others didn’t paint their nails at all. Also, the late ‘70s saw the introduction of the French manicure.

’80s and ‘90s

People experimented with colors, prints, and patterns on their nails. Throughout the ‘80s, women favored very long and square-shaped nails, as a natural evolution of the French manicure. And the grunge era saw both men and women painting their nails with dark hues.

2000s to Now

Now it seems as though the manicure possibilities are endless.

From Pinterest to Reddit, countless online resources provide inspiration for people to share their latest manicure inspirations.  

Who knows what’s next?