America Meets Acrylic
The first known American manicurist was a woman named Mary Cobb, who moved to New York City shortly after the end of the Civil War. Mary was well versed in the art of the manicure from traveling abroad in France, where women had been manicuring their nails for years due to the value placed on female purity and cleanliness in 19th century Europe. Cobb introduced nail soaking, trimming, and shaping to the United States, as well as the importance of coating the nail with clear enamel to protect it. In 1878 she opened her first salon, making her not only the first American manicurist, but also one of the first businesswomen in American history—trailblazing a path for female beauty moguls like Deborah Lippmann, Estée Lauder, Bobbi Brown, and Laura Mercier. On top of inspiring other women, Cobb went on to invent the emory board in 1884. While Cobb used clear enamel for manicures, Revlon introduced colored nail polish to the United States—which happened to be the very first product the company released. In 1932, the color “Creamy Enamel,” a beige neutral, was sold exclusively in beauty salons (the company later expanded to department stores and drugstores in 1937). Revlon’s enamels used pigments to make color more long-lasting and opaque. Charles Revson, Revlon’s owner, chose to use catchy, unusual names for the polishes for better advertising. Two of Revlon’s initial polish names were “Kissing Pink” and “Fatal Apple.”
While nail polish originally served a functional purpose in ancient times and slowly evolved to be a fashion statement, we now see examples once again emphasizing functionality: In 2014, four students at North Carolina State University invented a nail polish that supposedly can detect date rape drugs, like Rohyphnol, Xanax, or GHB. By simply dipping his or her nails in a drink, the potential victim can know the drink is drugged if the polish changes color. The product line, called “Undercover Colors,” is not on the market yet and critics have said it could potentially fuel victim blaming despite good intentions.
According to Lippmann, there’s always room to grow and develop within the nail polish industry. “I would love to create a product that was as effective and long-wearing as a gel, but without UV light,” says Lippmann. “Even more incredible would be something that helps women’s nails grow—so many women can’t grow their nails past their fingertips.”
No matter what the future holds, nail polish will remain a fun and potentially functional trend—even if the function is just to enjoy or experiment with beauty. Lippmann says, “I commonly see women become more expressive and come out of their shells after getting their hands done.”
She perfectly sums up our love for polish by adding, “If you are wearing something whimsical and it is right in front of your face, it will make you happy.”
Yep, nailed it.