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Nail Polish’s Surprisingly Threatening Origins

‘History Of’ explores the military origin of nail polish and more.

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The history of nail polish goes farther back than you might imagine. Today we think of nail art as fun and pretty, but originally it was a scare tactic. Around 3,200 BC, Babylonian soldiers reportedly stained their fingernails with green and black kohl as a way to intimidate their enemies.

Later, women used it much for the reason we do today: Because it’s cute! In China and Korea, women colored their nails with homemade potions made from crushed flowers; in parts of the Arab world, North Africa, and South Asia, women used henna as nail dye.

But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that nail salons and professional manicuring emerged, starting in France. Back then, manicures were a sign that you lived a life of leisure, one where you weren’t bothered to wash scalding dishes, dig around in a garden, or do any other kinds of manual labor.

Today, a manicure also demonstrates a certain level of leisure — even if it’s just enough leisure time to swipe some OPI or Essie polish on your hands at night while binge-watching TV before bed.

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