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When Nice Nails Could Change Lives

For immigrants and black women in turn-of-the-century America, well-manicured nails were make or break.

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“Dear me, but you are luxurious in your tastes,” the manicurist said from her stool as she eyed her new customer, sharing her reading like she just peered into a crystal ball. “And pray, how do you know?” the girl asked from her spot by the door. “Oh, I can tell by your nails.”

This was an exchange captured in a Detroit newspaper in 1895, where the manicurist showed how a quick glance at her appointment’s hands could reveal her to be a woman who loved to indulge. Think boxes of truffles, silk robes, and hats bought at the department store — even though it seemed like she was nothing more than a working-class salesgirl.

Things were changing during the turn of the century, when the bourgeoisie was no longer an exclusive, card-carriers-only club. “Fake it ’til you make it” was a real option now, and with the help of makeup, anyone could change their identity and rise above their station. Hands revealed where you fell in the social hierarchy, and not looking like you were a second-generation washer woman with cracked skin and chipped nails could allow you to climb the social ladder. It would help you apply for better apartments, answer notices for more middle-class jobs, and even date wealthier men — the kind who would introduce you to the right people over Champagne and send boxes of couture to your door.

There was the hope of a new and better “self” through the help of products, but coupling that with cuticle cream wasn’t as simple as it sounded. The blend made a heady mixture of fears that danced around immigration and race — and with it, the struggle to hold onto power. Clear nail polish bottled a lot of drama.

When the country’s first manicure salon opened in Manhattan in 1878, it was a classist affair. Soft hands and pointed nails hinted the woman was part of the country club set: if she used her hands for work any more taxing than lifting cucumber sandwiches from tea trays, her nails would break. But those who were part of the working class would have rough hands with short, easy-to-manage tips, whether they were businesswomen doing the accounting in department stores or laborers mopping floors. To have nice hands meant you had money.

Or at least it used to. A little before the turn of the century, the new idea was that as long as you kept your hands lovely, you didn’t have to be a lady. You could just imitate one.

This new spin was helpful to two groups of women in particular: immigrants and black women, who were especially policed and lambasted by society.

At the turn of the century, headlines promised that America was going through an immigration crisis. By 1930 some 30 million Europeans poured into the States, and while history liked to wax poetic about Ellis Island asking for its huddled masses, the reality was a little different. Americans weren’t thrilled with the Europeans landing at Lady Liberty’s golden door, mainly because they were the wrong kind.

Rather than the British, Norwegians, and Germans who traditionally made up the country, more than 80 percent of the people coming over were “New Immigrants,” or Southern and Eastern Europeans. They were thought to be poor, uneducated, and “rough around the edges,” and nationalists liked to peddle the idea that they would become a burden on the government, placing the blame of rising crime rates on their ghettos. But those complaints were just a front for the real reason behind the pushback: The new arrivals were changing “the look” of the country.

A wealthy woman receiving a manicure on an ocean liner.
Photo: Bain News Service/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In 1903 Teddy Roosevelt called it “race suicide,” lamenting how his fellow Anglo Americans were having less kids than the millions of immigrants pouring into towns and starting large, first-generation families. Newspaper headlines like The Baltimore Sun’s “Family of 15 Comes to the U.S.” and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Are We Becoming...A Mongrel Nation” began taking over front pages, pouring gasoline over the xenophobic flames.

The Immigration Act of 1924 tried to curb the takeover by creating a quota system, which slashed visas from New Immigrant countries by a whopping 97 percent. The prejudice was real, and it had a tendency to translate itself into violent flashpoints: In 1918, an axeman in New Orleans preyed on successful Italian grocers who were thought to be stealing jobs; South Omaha in 1909 led a community-wide effort to burn the city’s Greektown down to the ground; Polish communities were raided by the Ku Klux Klan.

Because of that, immigrant women fared better if they distanced themselves from their Old World image and took up a more middle-class, “American” look.

Newspapers tried to back that idea, claiming that women didn’t come to the US for a better life, but crossed the Atlantic for the chance to pursue American beauty. “‘Bettering conditions,’ in the abstract, could not induce many girls to go to America,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in 1909. “It is the sight of what America can do for a girl, how it can change her from a peasant’s daughter to a ‘lady,’ that makes them flock to the United States under normal conditions.”

The only reason she didn’t ditch her peasant clothes the moment she stepped off the ocean liner, the Tribune assured, was because her budget didn’t allow it. “Wherever you see a foreign woman still clinging to a shawl, skirt, or jacket of her native land, you may be sure that poverty is the cause of her un-American appearance.” The first bump in wages a husband would get in the stockyards or steel mills, the reporter predicted, was sure to go toward a shopping trip first, food second.

Taking it further, women’s columns began writing how immigrants who didn’t assimilate were ugly, and ugliness was a sign of immorality and corruption — the kind that could spread to America’s own daughters if they weren’t careful.

Daily inspection of teeth and finger nails on students in Oklahoma.
Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

For example, a biologist named Albert Edward, who lectured on heredity and eugenics, made a connection between the ugliness of immigrants and rising crime rates. He believed that one child was born to every three American women, but at the same time “one low-class, broad-backed, flat-chested, stout-legged, high-necked, stupid ugly immigrant women will in the same time produce three.” And with a decline in beauty came a decline in intelligence, which brought a drop in morals. “The crime wave is no mystery to biologists,” he shared. Obviously not everyone believed that, but enough did to lead newspapers to publicly applaud women who quickly adopted American looks. Which, really, meant mimicking the middle class.

The Chicago Tribune wrote that if you walked into a factory sewing room and were asked to pick out the American girls from the foreigners, it wouldn’t be easy. “All the girls looked alike. Their hair was done up in much the same way as the wealthy young women, who do nothing, do their hair up. The complexion and expression were American. The movements of the girls, their looks, and giggles were those of the American girl.” There was no distinction between them and the Chicago girls walking down Michigan Avenue that very moment.

This would directly translate to nails. Papers warned against cracked, calloused hands and damaged tips — the very kind that immigrants were prone to thanks to their rough working conditions. They were signs of bad character, even if the person seemed nice when you first met them. “Nails that are hard, resembling a claw or talon, even though the owner may appear pleasant, indicate a temperament that is hard-hearted, cruel, and unchaste,” The Washington Times claimed in 1906. But anyone could transform them by just going to the salon. ”A woman can go into a manicuring establishment with her hands as rough as nutmeg graters and her nails almost ragged. And in an hour she can come out with her hands soft and smooth and the nails in very fair condition.” Just like that, your identity was changed.

Black women faced similar circumstances: They couldn’t erase the racism that structured their lives, but they could use beauty as a tool for uplift. African-American women taught each other how to best wield it to their advantage through women’s magazines, the articles promising that if their tips were followed, conditions would improve. Half-Century Magazine, Woman’s Voice, and Ringwood’s Afro-American Journal of Fashion were the Essence of the Victorian era.

“It was a version of what people in another era might have referred to as ‘fake it ’til you make it’ mentality that linked grooming and fashion with the ability to rent a better apartment or have the option of a wider variety of jobs since the people who were doing the hiring expected their employees to look a certain way,” Noliwe Rooks, author of Ladies’ Pages: African American Women’s Magazines and the Culture That Made Them, and the one who recently unearthed these forgotten publications, shares.

A'Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, gets a manicure at one of her mother's beauty shops.
Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The more middle class you looked, the more opportunities you were offered. While all classes of ladies loved to thumb through their pages, these magazines were mostly geared toward the newly migrated women from the South who needed help fitting into their new fast-paced city lives. There were already well-established, African-American society women in these cities who lived there long before the Great Migration, and respectability politics were a real concern. They were worried over how the newer arrivals were behaving, walking around town in kitchen dresses and worn-down shoes, and they wrote in to these magazines with both complaints and tips.

“The kind of advice in the magazines assumed that the new migrants were coarse and unsophisticated,” Rooks explains. “There was a definite sense that the writers who were members of the upper classes of African-American society where slightly embarrassed by how some of the women who were migrating were behaving in public and concern that their behavior and appearance would reflect poorly on all African Americans. It was complex.”

While the latest fashions and hairstyles were obvious markers of respectability, so were nails. “I can forgive a plain face in a woman, but I cannot forgive ugly hands,” a writer for The Courier wrote in 1902. “The hand, if neglected, displays so many disagreeable traits that it is positively unforgivable.”

Magazines ran tarot-card-like readings of what certain nails meant about a person, always painting hands that would typically belong to working-class women as suspect. “Nails that are short and those in which the cuticle is growing over them in a ragged manner denotes a quarrelsome nature, a love of pushing order to the extreme, and love to meddle with other people’s business,” The Washington Times warned. In an effort to help, magazines wrote articles explaining how to properly take care of one’s manicure, especially focusing on how poorer women could hide the nature of their work.

Using clear nail polish to better your life might seem kind of funny when looking at it through today’s lens, but it makes sense to use all the tools available to you. “Those who are securely ensconced in middle- or upper-class positions don’t have as much to lose if someone judges them on the condition of their nails (or what they’re wearing — consider Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley tycoons who dress in jeans and hoodies at work). But when one is in a job interview, and has a lot on the line — like social advancement or supporting a family — one needs to put the best foot (or hand) forward,” Denise H. Sutton, author of Globalizing Ideal Beauty: Women, Advertising, and the Power of Marketing, explains.

Manicures at the turn of the century were an equalizer — whether you were from Warsaw or Westboro, you were going to grab onto and use all the options available to create a better, less violent life for yourself. And it just so happened that an appointment at a nail salon could get you one step closer there.

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