Fingernail polish in an illustration from 1931. The tips and “half moons” remain white. This was the fashion during the 1920’s and the 1930’s. Delineator, November 1931. The artist was Dhynevor Rhys.
By 1931, the liquid product we call “nail polish” was widely available, but there was an earlier way to shine your fingernails: nail polish powder. It persisted into the 1920’s.
From an ad for Cutex nail powder and polishes, Delineator, November 1924.
Back in the 1940s, my mother still had her old celluloid dresser set, (not as nice as that one!) which included — in addition to a hair brush and a mirror — a button hook, a hair receiver, a container for collar studs, a file, and a nail buffer. She showed me, once, how to put the polish, which came in a small jar, on my bare fingernails and then buff them to a soft shine with a chamois nail buffer.
Using a nail buffer; illustration from an article on nail care, Delineator, July 1924, p. 37.
Buffing your nails was supposed to improve circulation; it gave them a temporary rosy glow. (Pink fingertips go back a long way; Homer describes the dawn as “rosy fingered.”)
“Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Nestor left his couch and took his seat on the benches of white and polished marble that stood in front of his house. [Odyssey]” Thanks to Gary Corby.
In 1917, this is what nail polish could look like:
From an ad for Cutex nail polish, Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1917.
Cutex Nail Polish ad, 1917. Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1917.
The range of Cutex products in a sampler set from 1917 included “the ideal cuticle remover,” an emery board for shaping the nails, an orange stick for cleaning under nails and pushing back the cuticle, a ball of cotton, nail white, “polishing paste pink” and a bar [or is it a box?] of polish.
Cutex manicure products, 1917. This sampler kit “sent for 14 cents” includes two forms of polish, nail white, cuticle remover, “Cuticle Comfort” moisturizer, and basic tools. Ad from LHJ, October 1917.
There is an excellent history of the Cutex company, which was founded by Northam Warren, complete with product descriptions and early advertising: click here.
This Cutex cuticle remover ad from October 1917 explains how to use it by soaking cotton in the Cutex and applying it to the cuticle with an orange stick. (The thimble-like object is the cork bottle stopper.)
The Cutex company’s initial product was a liquid for softening and minimizing cuticles without cutting them: Cuticle-“X,” became the “Cutex” brand.
Cutex Cuticle Remover ad, October 1917; Ladies’ Home Journal. “Discard forever your manicure scissors!”
After removing the cuticle and buffing your nails to a rosy shine, you could finish by whitening the tips of your nails:
Applying Cutex nail white, from a 1917 advertisement. “A touch of Cutex Nail White underneath the nails leaves them immaculate — snowy white.” Later, Nail White came in a tube, making it easier to apply. This is an ancestor of the “French Manicure” popular at the end of the 2oth century.
In 1917 — and into the 1920’s — the ideal was an almond-shaped nail with a distinct half-moon at the base and white tips:
The twenties’ ideal was almond nails with white half moons and tips; from an ad for Cutex, November 1927; Delineator. Colored polish was not applied to the tip or the base of the nail.
Half moons and lovely oval fingernails. Cutex ad, April 1928. Delineator. The “ideal nail shape” changed to sharply pointed nails in the nineteen thirties, but the half moons and tips remained white.
According to several sources, clear liquid nail polish was available in 1916, and Cutex sold a clear liquid polish, tinted “natural” pink, after 1920, but in this Cutex ad from 1924, Cutex Liquid Polish which “lasts a whole week” is just one option among the older buffing products like powder polish, cake polish, and paste polish.
An introductory set: Cutex powder polish and liquid polish plus cuticle remover and cuticle cream. Ad in Delineator, October 1924. Full sizes cost 35 cents each.
Throughout the nineteen twenties, liquid polish gained popularity.
The “sophisticated Parisienne” applies Cutex Liquid Nail Polish in this ad from November, 1926. Delineator. The brush is now part of the bottle cap.
Cutex packaging was changing, too.
A sample of Cutex liquid nail polish in a bottle with separate brush. Ad from November 1926. “In two shades, “Natural or the New Deep Rose.” A bottle of nail polish remover was included.
By 1928, Cutex ad campaigns featured celebrities like Anita Loos.
Anita Loos appeared in an ad for Cutex liquid nail polish in 1928.
Illustrator and industrial designer Helen Dryden praised liquid Cutex nail polish.
So did this “lady explorer” (Osa Johnson) on a zebra….
Cutex ad, January 1929, Delineator. Cutex liquid nail polish was advertised as nail protection in the late 1920’s.
Also in the late twenties, Cutex packaging took on an Art Deco look:
Cutex Liquid Nail Polish and Nail Polish Remover. January 1929 advertisement. This introductory offer included both for 6 cents, but normal sized bottles cost 35 cents each.
Incredibly, it seems that liquid nail polish was sold in the 1910’s before nail polish remover appeared, but in this 1929 introductory package, they are offered together.
The ideal fingernail was not overly long in the 1920s — and nail polish did not cover the “half-moon” or the tips of the nails. Cutex ad, Delineator, June 1928.
Elegant hands wear colored nail polish on a Delineator cover, February 1932. Dynevor Rhys illustration.
As liquid nail polish became available in a range of bright colors, Cutex had to convince women to wear them. There was an ad campaign stressing that respectable socialites and debutantes wore colored nail polish. Presumably, conservative women thought red nails were the sign of a scarlet woman, and had to be persuaded otherwise.
Do 1932 debutantes choose tinted nails or natural? Cutex ad, Delineator, February 1932. “The popular girl of 1932 is way past losing sleep over whether to wear her nails bright or pale.”
Debutantes were encouraged to wear colored nail polish — and sharply pointed nails. Cutex ad, Delineator, February 1932. Applying polish to just part of the nail is definitely more difficult than painting the entire nail, but fashion is rarely practical….
Pointed nails shaped like claws appeared in the early 1930’s.
The picture of innocence? Strawberry soda and very sharp fingernails painted to match. Delineator cover, July 1933. Dynevor Rhys illustration.
If respectable women were going to have bright red fingernails, they needed to be taught how to coordinate their nail polish with their clothing.
Three highly respectable socialites wear brightly colored nail polish. From left, ruby red nails with a black outfit, rose nails with a green dress and silver fox fur, and coral nails with a beige dress. Cutex ad, February 1933, Delineator.
Tinted or natural colored nail polish? It depended on what you were wearing. Cutex ad, February 1932. “Wear Cardinal with black velvet — Natural with brocaded [metallic] lame — and Coral to accent white satin.”
A larger range of colors was available:
Cutex advertised six nail polish colors in February 1933. Delineator. A woman had to have several choices so she wouldn’t “commit Atrocities” with clashing colors. “If there’s any dress in your closet that hasn’t its special shade of polish to snap it up, go get it!” That should increase sales….
There was also price competition:
Ad for Glazo liquid nail polish, Delineator, February 1934. At 25 cents, Glazo was much cheaper than 35 cent Cutex, which made it easier to own several colors.
From an ad for Glazo nail polish, Delineator, February 1934. “Six authentic shades. Natural, Shell, Flame, Geranium, Crimson, Mandarin Red, Colorless.”
Women also needed more nail polish in the nineteen thirties, because they were encouraged to paint their toenails, too.
A “manicure” included matching polished toenails in this beauty advice article from July 1934. Delineator, p. 37. The new, open-toed sandals for day or evening showed off twinkling toes.
In the thirties, open-toed shoes came out of the bedroom and on to the dance floor. These high-heeled evening sandals , trimmed with gold, were featured in 1934:
Right, evening sandals, June 1934, Delineator.
The sandals pictured below are for daytime wear, but not necessarily on the beach.
Fashion article in Delineator, June 1934. Sandals to show “your tanned feet and tinted toe-nails.”
Daytime sandals described in Delineator fashion article, June 1934.
EXTRAS: You can still buy a nail buffer and polishing cream at Vermont Country Store.
There is a History of Cutex with color ads at the Chronically Vintage blog, and an authoritative history of Cutex with color ads and images of products 1920, etc. at the Northam Warren (Cutex) site.