Tinting Through Time
The word “manicure” (which comes from the Latin words “manus” and “cura”) was not popularized in the United States until the 1870s, but the concept of nail care and painting goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian women used henna, a leafy green plant native to Egypt, to tint their nails. Henna leaves can be ground into powder and mixed with hot water to form a liquid dye. Though the plant leaves are green, once applied to the nail, the henna dye can range from light orange to crimson. This practice remained popular in Egypt from around 5000 to 3000 BCE.
Tinting nails with henna may have served a functional purpose before becoming a fashion statement: Henna has anti-fungal properties, so laborers working in harsh environments (or someone preparing a body for burial) may have used henna to protect and preserve their fingers.
Later, however, Egyptians used nail color to indicate power and status. The bolder and stronger one’s nail color, the more power one supposedly had. For example, female pharaohs Nefertiti and Cleopatra both donned deep red nails, while lower-class women wore lighter shades or nothing at all. Nefertiti and Cleopatra must have been onto something thousands of years ago: According to Brown at OPI, the color “I’m Not Really A Waitress,” a dark red, is the brand’s best-selling polish today.
When excavating a royal tomb in Southern Babylonia from roughly 4000 BC, archaeologists discovered a solid gold manicure set—rivaling Kelly Osborne’s $250,000 black diamond manicure at the 2012 Emmy’s. Ancient Babylonian men (not women!) colored their nails with kohl as a pre-battle ritual, in addition to tinting their lips to match. Next time you decide to match your lipstick to your nail polish, thank these stylish Ancient Babylonian warriors.
But the first people to actually mix and bottle a product for nail painting were the Chinese near the year 3000 BC. Varying amounts of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and flower petals (rose and orchid were especially popular) created different colors and textures. While modern nail polish takes just minutes to dry due to advanced ingredients, Chinese women had to wait for hours, sometimes overnight, for their nails to dry. Similar to Ancient Egypt, nail polish denoted class and wealth in Chinese society. Colors like silver, gold, red, and black were exclusively for royals. Often, a royal’s nails might be inlaid with gemstones. But if a member of the lower class wore these shades or designs, they face a public death penalty—all because of a little polish.