Nail Trends

Nail Care: From Ancient Rites to New Heights

Superstitions and unusual practices have helped pave the road to modern nail care. 

illustration/Quinn Kaneko
<p>illustration/Quinn Kaneko</p>
Even in this age of science and technology many of us continue to harbor at least a few superstitions and avoid crossing the path of a black cat or walking under a ladder. Though many people may find superstitions beliefs and practices somewhat amusing, for millennia superstitions have served as an attempt to explain the unexplainable.

The art of grooming the human body has been developing for at least 8,000 years, and superstitions thought often has shaped its development states Doreen Yarwood in The Encyclopedia of World Costume. The practice of perfuming and powdering the body as well as painting and dyeing both the hair and the nails grew out of social, religious, and military rituals, and is at least as old as written history Archaeological digs have unearthed face powder, eye makeup, and finger nail polish dating to around 6000 B.C. Archaeological conducting excavations at royal tombs in Ur in southern Babylon discovered a multi-piece manicure set that contained clippers, and scissors made of solid gold. The research of M. Angelou, author of A History of Makeup, and E.A. Wallis Budge, who wrote A Short History of the Egyptian People, indicates that the practice of staining or painting the nails, and sometimes even the entire finger, a fashionable reddish-brown was common during this same period.

The Chinese should be given the credit for originating “finger dipping,” which was done to signify rank within their rigid social order. In ancient China, as well as in Egypt, the leaves of the henna plant provided an ample supply of reddish-brown dye which could easily be applied by soaking the nails and fingers in a wooden bow filled with this natural colorant. In China, trimming the nails was, and still is, avoided, since even among the lower classes long nails denote wisdom.

The Chinese, by the third millennium B.C., had combined gum Arabic, egg white, gelatin, and beeswax to formulate a substance that was used as fingernail enamel. This pale substance was used by rulers who took great pride in the appearance of their nails. Later, during the Chou dynasty (1126-256 B.C.), good and silver became the preferred nail colors for anyone of nobility. According to a 15th-century Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) manuscript, the colors of choice for royal finger nails had changed to red and black.


Beauty and manicure shops flourished in ancient Egypt around 4000 B.C. Among the Egyptians, as well, nail coloration came to represent one’s place on the social ladder, with shades of red used by those at the uppermost rung. Queen Nefertiti (c. 1375-1350 B.C.), wife of Ikhnaton, painted her fingernails and toenails a deep ruby red, while Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) favored a rust color. Women of the lower order were allowed to wear pale hues, but only those who dared to risk death wore nails the same color as the queen’s or the king’s (Egyptian men also painted their nail)

Egyptian men were no less vain in death than they were in life, for they stocked their tombs with an ample supply of nail paints and polishes for the afterlife. In the tomb of King Tutankhamen (c. 1380-1350 B.C.), several small containers of cosmetics, including nail polish, were buried, each of which was still usable in the 1920s when the tomb was unearthed.


In ancient Greece, people preferred natural, unpainted finger nails and associated the half-moons on the nail plate with earth’s moon. According to legend, the rays of the moon helped dislodge the soul form the flesh of the dead.  Thus freed from its earthly prison, the soul could reach the heavens. Moon shapes in the nail were used to predict a person’s future and the fate of the soul. The practice of fingernail coloring did not develop in Greece until the fifth century B.C., at which time mistresses of the wealthy made it a daily habit to color both their nails and hair a light , almost blond shade, believing that lighter tones represented innocence, superior social status, and sexual desirability. They achieved this shade with a dye made from yellow flower petals, pollen, and potassium salt.

Along with the development of nail care came an ancient Greek ritual, known as “onychomancy,” says author William Reginald Halliday in Greek and Roman Folklore. This tradition of finger divination was performed on the nails of an “unpolluted or morally pure” young boy. The boy’s fingernails were covered with a thick mixture of soot and oil, then held perfectly still beneath the blazing midday sun, allowing images to be reflected. These “portraits” provided messages or clues that helped answer questions that had been asked beforehand. The entire direction of a culture’s daily routine -- including when to attack an enemy, to harvest crops, or even to conceive children -- might depend upon a single onychomantic reading. States Halliday


Painted nails were common among high-ranking male warriors about to go into battle.  Egyptian, Babylonian, and Roman military leaders spent several hours prior to each military confrontation having their hair lacquered and curled and their nails painted to match their lips. The battle records of Thutmosis III of Egypt (c. 1504-1450 B.C.), carved on the Temple of Amon at Karnak, claim he conquered 500 countries during his reign; prior to each battle, a dozen or more servants were needed for his cosmetic transformation.


Throughout recorded history there have been numerous instances in which men have tried to prohibit the use of nail polish and other cosmetics.  Xenophon, a fourth-century B.C. Greek historian, argued in the pages of Good Husbandry that his new bride intentionally deceived him by coloring her hair, face, and fingernails: “When I found her painted, I pointed out that she was being as dishonest . . . as I should be were I to deceive her about my property.

And as Recently as 1770, legislation was introduced in the British Parliament demanding “that women of whatever age, rank, or profession, whether virgins, maids, or widows, who shall seduce or betray into matrimony, by scents, nail paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, shall incur the penalty of the law as against witchcraft, and that the marriage shall stand null and void scoffed at and the British law was defeated.


In medieval Europe, when there was widespread belief in witchcraft, a method of fortune-telling by studying the white spots on a person’s fingernails became popular.  If a white spot appeared prominently on the thumb, a gift was in the offing; on the index finger, a friend would arrive; on the long or middle finger, an enemy was lurking; on the fourth finger, a letter or sweetheart would grab your attention; and on the little finger, a journey was in order.

During the 1800s, there was worldwide superstition surrounding the disposal of nail cuttings.  It was believed that they should be either buried or burned; otherwise an evil sorcerer might use them in some bewitching concoction.  Those who practiced good magic, on the other hand, recommended that fingernail clippings be “thrown at the entrance of anthills, and the first ant caught bearing a piece would bring the best of health and luck to the person who caught it.”


Early immigrants to America brought with them superstitions beliefs and practices.  The pilgrims, for example, believed that throwing fingernail cuttings into the ocean during a calm would cause a violent storm to erupt.

Eighteenth-century fortune-tellers developed a formula for precisely when one should trim one’s nails: “Cut them on Monday, you cut them for news; cut them on Tuesday, a new pair of shoes; cut them on Wednesday, you cut them for health; cut them on Thursday you cut them for wealth; cut them on Friday, a sweetheart you’ll know; cut them on Saturday, a-journey you’ll go; cut them on Sunday, you cut them for evil; for all the next week, you’ll be ruled by the devil.”

Pioneers found answers to puzzling character questions in nail markings as well as nail habits.  William J. Fielding, author of Strange Customs of courtship and Marriage, William Graham, who wrote Folkways, and Daniel Lindsey Thomas, author of Kentucky Superstitions, told in their books of such beliefs as these: Biting the nails would stunt the person’s growth: pronounced half-moons indicated good blood; short, ridged nails foretold an early death stubby fingernails belonged to a blatant liar; and long, tapering nails were thought to be those of an artistic person who would live long.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, superstitions connecting nails to love and marriage abounded:  A young woman was advised by her mother never to trim her fingernails on Sunday lest she grow up to be an old maid.  It was also said that the best way to make a man fall in love with you was to offer him a drink in which you had earlier soaked your fingernail parings.  When a young girl became a mother, she was instructed to refrain from cutting her infant’s nails during the first year of the infant’s life.  If she cut them, it was believed the child would grow up to be a thief.

Manicurists of the early 20th century thought they could read a person’s character from his or her fingernails.  A woman with triangular-shaped nails couldn’t keep a secret; a man with long, slim fingernails could not be expected to be a good provider, since his lazy nature would prevail; and a person with round or ridged nails was honest and sincere, but had a short temper.

Undoubtedly, manicuring has played a powerful role in people’s lives throughout history.  Well-cared-for nails, both on the hands and feet, represented an effort to exhibit culture and breeding.  In this regard, ancient peoples were not so different from us.  Americans spend more than $4 billion annually on professional nail services, and some of us are still a little superstitious at times.


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