Nail polish might seem like a completely modern invention, as comparatively contemporary as elevators, coffeemakers and the like. The sleek cosmetic products, however, have actually been in existence for thousands of years, long before the emergence of pharmacies and drugstores. Nail polish is a Chinese invention.
Invention of Nail Polish
Nail polish was invented in China roughly 5,000 years ago, around 3000 B.C. Some of the components used to produce this early nail polish were beeswax, gum arabic, egg whites, natural dyes and gelatin. Nail polish was available in colors similar to those available today -- think red and pink. Petals from flowers such as roses and orchids often provided the pigmentation in nail polish.
A Time-Consuming Process
While modern nail polish typically dries in a matter of minutes, that definitely wasn't the case with the rudimentary versions made in ancient China. Once women painted their nails, they typically had to wait for several hours. Some women even went to sleep hoping for it to dry fully by the morning.
Zhou Dynasty and Nail Polish
During the Zhou Dynasty of the 11th to 3rd centuries B.C., women of different classes wore nail polish, whether they were privileged or not. Nail polish color denoted the social status of a woman. In 600 B.C., royals painted their nails with silver and gold. Average Chinese women were permitted to wear light pink nail polish. The consequences of not abiding by the color regulations were extremely severe. Any lower-class Chinese girl who painted her fingernails in royal colors would have faced the death penalty. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (14th to 17th century), royal nail polish color preferences had switched to red and black.
Nail Polish in Ancient Egypt
Although the Chinese were pioneers in the origins of nail polish, Egyptian women (and men too) were also coloring their nails by 3000 B.C. Their methods for painting their nails differed from the formulas used by the Chinese, but color still signified social status, with deep red hues reserved for those of high rank. Ancient Egyptians often immersed their fingertips in reddish-brown henna, a type of dye extracted from flowering plants. Cleopatra, for one, was a big fan of henna for nail coloring. Ancient Egypt also produced some nail polish blends that were lacquer-like in formula. Egyptian women frequently used berries to color their nails, too.
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