Vintage manicure how-tos & products that women used to use for pretty nails

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Before colored nail polish was in stores, here's what women 100 years ago did for a manicure

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Before colored nail polish hit the market in the 1920s, women gave themselves home manicures… and even sometimes got a little inventive with DIY nail art.

Here’s a quick look back at some vintage manicure products, and the kind of creativity you might see on some fingertips 100+ years ago.

Vintage manicure how-to: Fair fingers self-acquired (1902)

From The Saint Paul Globe (St. Paul, Minn.) September 19, 1902

Woman’s latest whim is to perfect herself in the art of manicuring, not because she ever expects to become a professional, but so she may perform the task for herself if so minded.

In many cases her equipment is very elaborate, a Royal Worchester or cut glass bowl for the tepid water, the daintiest perfume obtainable, and polisher, file and scissors ornamented with gold. More often, however, the manicure sets are of silver.

For the woman who manicures her own nails as a question of economy, there are implements which do the work as well as the gold-finished sets and are inexpensive.

There must be the orangewood stick and a steel instrument to assist in removing the cuticle, as well as the other appurtenances already mentioned. A complete outfit includes pink paste, lacquer and a camels-hair brush with which to apply it.

There is a new paste, of a pink color, which now takes the place of the powder and paste which formerly were used to polish the nails.

It is an easy matter to be one’s own manicure, even though a trifle awkward, on account of the fact that only one hand is able to do the work.

MORE: 109 colors of retro Revlon nail polish (1981)

Pretty nails, 1902 edition A step-by-step manicure how-to (1)

Pretty nails: A step-by-step manicure how-to

The first step is to prepare the tepid water. In it is poured a few drops of a perfumed preparation intended to soften the cuticle.

Before soaking the fingertips in the water, the nails should be filed. Contrary to the general belief of the amateur manicure, it is easier to file and shape them properly before they are softened with the water.

Pointed nails are out of date. When filed, they should be rounded and slightly longer than the fingertips.

After the cuticle is softened by holding the fingers in the water, it must be removed. For this, the orangewood stick is sufficient, although many also use a sharp steel instrument in addition.

To do this requires much care, or it will scratch the nails. Its use is to entirely remove the softened cuticle which grows over the nail. With the orangewood stick, the cuticle is simply pushed back from the nail carefully in order to leave no ragged edge. The amateur should dispense with the steel [nail file], since only the practiced hand can use it successfully.

After the filing, the polishing is in order. The old way, using paste over which powder is sprinkled in order to produce a very high polish, is abandoned. Paste alone, a new preparation, is now used, and the nails are polished.

The beginner is certain to attempt to polish all the nails at once, as a matter of saving labor. Better results are secured by polishing one at a time. Afterward, each nail may be lacquered in order to preserve the polish as long as possible.

ALSO SEE: See top vintage nail polish colors & retro brands

Pretty nails A step-by-step manicure how-to from 1902

If there are any loose bits of skin, they may be cut off with the scissors. It is a mistake, however, to use the scissors too freely. If possible, they should be dispensed with altogether, since much snipping of the skin around the nails causes it to harden in time and ruin the appearance of the finger ends.

Many persons have the idea that the shape of the finger ends may in time be entirely changed by a persistent course of manicuring. This idea is erroneous.

Frequently, women have destroyed the beauty of their hands by trying to transform with the scissors the blunt, thick finger ends that belong on the practical or elementary hand into the dainty or tapering fingertips of the psychic or purely artistic temperament.

They did not know that their finger ends were a key to their characters, and so snipped away every possible bit of skin at the sides of the nails until, as result, the finger ends became calloused and larger than before.

There is a marked difference in the way men view the manicure as compared with a few years ago. Men who in the not remote past depended on their penknives and their own skill with the same to put their fingernails in proper condition now regularly patronize the manicures.

Indeed, many are more particular as to the manner in which their nails are cared for than are the women. In many of the establishments in which manicuring is done, men are the best patrons.

ALSO SEE: How to get beautiful nails: 9 tips for your next mani-pedi


Vintage manicure accessories from 1917

No. 504. Geisha Nail Stone. Gives a delicate shell-like lustre to the fingernails. Flesh tinted and delicately perfumed. An Oriental product of great efficiency. In painted porcelain boxes. Price 25c.

No. 503. Nail Bleach. Whitens the nails, softens the cuticle, making it easy to train the nails to perfect shape. In glass stopper bottles. Price 25c.

No. 506. Manicure Set. A convenience for the dressing table and a very dainty gift. Contains a bottle of Geisha Nail Bleach, a box of Geisha Nail Stone and six Orangewood Sticks. In attractive hand-decorated Oriental box. Price 50c.

DON’T MISS THIS: See vintage drugstores 100 years ago, selling lots of things you can’t (legally) buy anymore

Drugstore products and manicure essentials from 1917


Vintage manicure kits with shiny clear nail polish (1920)

Every day, people judge you by your nails. Have they the beauty they so easily can gain?

“How beautifully turned out, how correct,” you thought — until you caught a glimpse of her nails. Then, “Shocking!” you said to yourself. And that one glimpse of her carelessly groomed hands left an impression that you never forgot.

Do you realize how easy it is to keep your nails lovely — so lovely that they lend you that assurance which comes from the knowledge that even the most critical eye can find nothing but immaculate perfection?

The secret of beautiful nails lies in the care of the cuticle. This is the most important part of a manicure. The more you cut the cuticle the faster it grows. It becomes tough, thick, and hangnails appear. You can keep your nails lovely without injuring the cuticle.

MORE: 20 elegant antique bathrooms from the 1900s: Sinks, tubs, tile & decor

…If you like snowy white nail tips apply a little Cutex Nail White underneath the nails directly from the tube.

Finish your manicure with Cutex Nail Polish. For an especially brilliant, lasting polish, use Cutex Paste Polish first, then the Cutex Cake or Powder polish.

Give yourself this manicure regularly. Make it as much of a habit as keeping your shoes shined. It is true that one Cutex manicure makes your nails look lately; but you cannot keep them well-groomed by irregular care.

Give your nails a Cutex manicure regularly. Cutex Cuticle Remover, Nail White, Nail Polish and Cold Cream are 35 cents. The Cuticle Remover comes also in 65 cent bottles. You can get Cutex in any drug or department store in the United States, Canada and in any chemist shop in England.

For twenty cents we will send you the Midget Manicure Set containing enough of the Cutex preparations for at least six manicures…

Vintage manicure kits (1920)


Vintage nail art started getting popular more than 100 years ago (1916)

From The Day Book (Chicago, Ill.) April 29, 1916

Are you wearing gilded or decorated nails?

We are not kidding, but talking the latest society chatter. The newest thing in nails is gilded and decorated nails, nails dipped in silver or burnished in gold, or decorated with designs to match your dress.

If you don’t like the fad, blame Mlle Flore Revalles of the Russian ballet. She started the fad. She is shown in the center of the hand.

ALSO SEE: Think you’re stylish now? See how ladies’ little nose rings started to get trendy 100 years ago

1916 - finger nail art manicure


Vintage manicure kits from in the days before colored nail polish (1920)

The new way to manicure does away with ruinous cutting which makes the cuticle grow tough and thick, which causes hangnails and ruins the appearance of your whole hand.

Start today to have lovely nails. No matter how unattractive cuticle-cutting may have made your nails, Cutex will really transform them. Cutex completely does away with the necessity of cutting or trimming the cuticle. It is absolutely harmless.

The moment you use it, you will be enthusiastic about the way it softens surplus cuticle — the way over-grown cuticle, ragged edges, hangnails vanish!

Have your first Cutex manicure today. Then examine your nails! They will look so shapely, so well-groomed, your will catch yourself admiring them every little while.

Cutex manicure kits from 1920

ALSO SEE: See top vintage nail polish colors & retro brands

If you liked this, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!

More stories you might like

Because the fun never ends

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Choose your next adventure

Join the fun

Don’t miss out on the latest and greatest vintage stuff!

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.