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May 5, 2024 5 mins

The nail polishes popular today owe their existence to the automotive industry, but the history of nail colors and varnishes goes back millennia. Learn the history of nail polish in this classic episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/nail-care/tips/colorful-history-nail-polish.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
I'm Lauren vogel Bomb, and this is a classic episode
from the Vault. In this one, we go into the
perhaps surprisingly long history of nail polish, from ancient marks
of class and military status to modern materials from the

(00:22):
automotive industry.

Speaker 2 (00:25):
Hey brain Stuff, Lauren vogel Bomb. Here with a look
into the history of an everyday item, nail polish. It's
actually been an everyday item for folks going back at
least five thousand years. The very first people to apply
color to their nails were likely in India during the
Bronze Age, and they probably used hannah to do it.
The use of hannah as a dye for body art
was very common, so extending the designs and color onto

(00:48):
the nails was a natural next step. The Chinese took
the nail game up level sometime around three thousand BCE.
They created a sort of nail varnish using a mixture
of egg whites, beeswax, gelatine, amarabic which is a sap
from the acacia tree, and alum, a compound frequently used
in dyeing to help colors stick. These varnishes were then

(01:08):
colored with flower petals or gold or silver dust. They
further personalized the looks with artificial nails made of silver
and gold, covered with jewels or closwine as well. These
elaborately designed and colored nails were exclusively reserved for royal
classes only. Around the same time, the Babylonians were getting
into the nail game, but it was the warriors who

(01:28):
were wearing color. The men pigmented their nails with coal,
which is finely powdered sulfide before going into battle again.
Even among these soldiers, class mattered. Higher class warriors had
their nails colored with black coal, while lower class fighters
used green coal. Enna has also been found painted on
Egyptian mummies, including their nails. Nail colour signified class in

(01:49):
Egypt too. The redder ones nails in ancient Egypt, the
more power that person had. Queen Nefertiti, the stepmother of
King Tutan, common, wore dark red nails, a color rumored
to have blood in it. Cleopatra is said to have
painted her nails from the juice of the hennaplant, which
created a deep and rusty color. Women of lower rank
were only allowed to wear pastel colors colored nails were

(02:11):
popular in Europe by the Renaissance era, when trade with
countries in Asia opened up. Coloring and bejeweling nails hit
another high in eighteenth century French quartz, where outlandish fashion
trends were the rage. By the Victorian era, women were
creating color and shine with tinted oils. Women were also
using tinted powders and creams on their nails to give
them color and shine. That apply the mild abrasive and

(02:33):
buffet for a shiny look, but it took time to
apply the powdered cream, polish and buff each nail. In
nineteen sixteen, q Tex changed that when it introduced its
first clear nail lacquer. Painting a layer of shine on
fingernails became much easier than all that buffing. It wasn't
until the early twentieth century that polish as we know
it came into existence, though, and we have the automobile

(02:55):
industry to think. In the nineteen twenties, automotive paint was invented,
and not long after French manicurist Michelle Minard adapted the
formula to create opaque nail polish. Her employer, Charles Revson,
knew a good thing when he saw it, so he
and his brother Joseph launched a new company, Revlon, with
the first colored nail enamel appearing in nineteen thirty two.

(03:17):
Manicures were far from being the exclusive territory of the
upper classes at this point. A bottle of q Tex
nail polish cost thirty five cents in nineteen thirty four
and affordable luxury in a time of type purse strings.
When America entered World War II and women joined the
workforce in huge numbers, manicures changed accordingly. Long nails were
not going to last doing shift work at the factory.

(03:38):
Even the New York Times ran remedies for motor mechanic hands.
Rather than trying to keep up brightly painted nails, women
working manual jobs turned back to clear polish or even
buffing with cream polish. After Manard invented colored nail laquer,
women were having their nails coated from base to tip
with solid colors. But it didn't take long before the
French manicure became a mark of sophistication. Rather than using

(04:00):
two colors as we often do today, women would leave
the moon at the base of the nail and the
tip completely and very carefully unpainted. Black nail varnish was
introduced in the nineteen thirties, though there's no evidence of
any soldiers getting their nails done a lah the Babylonians.
At the same time in England, women were having landscapes
painted onto their nails, a level of detail not attempted

(04:22):
since the Chinese Closbonne nails of nearly five thousand years before.
You can now find nail polish nearly everywhere, in nearly
every color, and for as little as a few dollars
a bottle, But the echoes of the upper class Chinese, Babylonian,
Egyptian and French still linger in products like Acid Tour's
Black Diamond Polish. It contains two hundred and sixty seven

(04:44):
carrots of black diamonds and costs a cool two hundred
and fifty thousand dollars a bottle.

Speaker 1 (04:54):
Today's episode is based on the article The Colorful History
of nail polish on houstuffworks dot com, written by Christie
Hall Geisler. Brain Stuff is production of iHeartRadio in partnership
with how stuffworks dot Com, and it's produced by Tyler Klang.
Four more podcasts from My heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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