The fashion of decorating the fingernails and toenails with color began in ancient societies, mainly among those of the upper classes. Carefully tended and adorned nails showed that one belonged to a leisure class that did not have to do manual labor. By the early twentieth century, advances in industry had made many products more affordable to a wide range of people, and luxuries, such as cosmetics and nail polish, became available to those of all classes. This, along with advances in paint technology that allowed the creation of a hard durable paint, caused an increase in the popularity of colored polish for fingernails and toenails by the 1920s.
Around 3000 B.C.E. wealthy people in ancient China used a mixture of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and dyes to paint their fingernails red, black, gold, and silver. Ancient Babylonians and Egyptians also colored their nails with natural substances such as henna powder, a reddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush, using color to indicate the wearer's rank in society. Even men in Egypt and ancient Rome sometimes painted their nails and lips red before going into battle.
During the late nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, it became common for people to manicure their nails, using scissors and files to trim and shape them. Colored creams and powders were rubbed into the nails for decoration, but they wore off quickly. It was not until the introduction of the automobile, and the shiny, durable paints that were created to protect its metal surfaces, that modern fingernail polish was introduced. Made much the same as automobile paint, the first liquid nail polish appeared in 1907 and was soon available in a variety of bright colors. The flashy style of the 1920s, with its love of exotic Eastern fashions, was the perfect time for the new product, and young women of the era painted their nails in bright pinks and reds, sometimes leaving the tips white for contrast.
One of the first brands of nail polish sold in the United States was Cutex Liquid Polish. Women's magazines, such as the Ladies' Home Journal and Delineator, carried advertisements to entice women to use Cutex. One Cutex ad in the Delineator of September 1929 features the celebrity dancer Irene Castle (1893–1969) showing off painted nails. The ad copy reads: "The celebrated Irene Castle McLaughlin finds this new polish flatters her lovely hands. Tomorrow's fashion is what Irene Castle McLaughlin is doing today! That was true even when she was a mere girl. The world caught its breath when she bobbed her hair … and scissors clicked from coast to coast. She improvised new steps and the whole world danced them." The fashion for painted nails has not diminished. Cutex and many other brands of nail polish continue to be sold throughout the world.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Vanity Rules: A History of American Fashion and Beauty. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.