Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nail Polish’s Surprisingly Threatening Origins

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

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

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.

Follow Racked on YouTube for more videos | Like Racked on Facebook to never miss a video