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.
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.
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:
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.
There is an excellent history of the Cutex company, which was founded by Northam Warren, complete with product descriptions and early advertising: click here.
The Cutex company’s initial product was a liquid for softening and minimizing cuticles without cutting them: Cuticle-“X,” became the “Cutex” brand.
After removing the cuticle and buffing your nails to a rosy shine, you could finish by whitening the tips of your nails:
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:
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.
Throughout the nineteen twenties, liquid polish gained popularity.
Cutex packaging was changing, too.
By 1928, Cutex ad campaigns featured celebrities like Anita Loos.
Illustrator and industrial designer Helen Dryden praised liquid Cutex nail polish.
So did this “lady explorer” (Osa Johnson) on a zebra….
Also in the late twenties, Cutex packaging took on an Art Deco look:
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.
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.
Pointed nails shaped like claws appeared in the early 1930’s.
If respectable women were going to have bright red fingernails, they needed to be taught how to coordinate their nail polish with their clothing.A larger range of colors was available:
There was also price competition:
Women also needed more nail polish in the nineteen thirties, because they were encouraged to paint their toenails, too.
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:
The sandals pictured below are for daytime wear, but not necessarily on the beach.
EXTRAS: You can still buy a nail buffer and polishing cream at Vermont Country Store.