My Career as a Manicure

October 24th, 2011

While preparing to stand up as bridesmaid for a dear friend, I had occasion to give myself a “french manicure.” There wasn’t time to go to a nail salon, so I picked up a kit at the drug store and did my best. Considering it was the first time I’ve painted my nails in years, I must say it didn’t turn out badly.


Neat, yet fairly subtle. And short enough that I can still crochet and sew with ease. It got me wondering about the history of manicures in the 19th century. America seems to have adopted this particular refinement by the 1880s, straight from the world’s most fashionable city. Here’s one of the earliest references I was able to find:


AN article recently published in Harper’s Bazar, and entitled “Woman’s Pedicures and Manicures in Paris,” was doubtless read by many with considerable interest, as it pointed to a sphere of employment in which American women might find useful and remunerative activity. The writer sketches the personale and skillful treatment of a feminine pedicure, whom she engaged to perform the services which would be rendered by a professional chiropodist in this country, and who, for the insignificant sum of forty sous, furnished her “with a bran-new pair of feet, when she got up and prepared to walk off on them.”

Then she proceeds to describe the office and equipment of a “manicure,” to whom she went for curiosity’s sake and for an item or two.

“After a tedious waiting, my turn at length came, and I seated myself by the manicure’s little table, upon which were scattered the tools of her trade. These were scissors and knives of a shape specially devised for the trimming of the nails, files, nail-cleaners, a small basin of rose-water with a bit of soap near it, a tiny towel of linen cambric, a bit of lemon, and various polishing powders and sweet-smelling unguents in the form of ruby colored pomades. The first step in her proceedings was to wash off the finger-tips carefully, then to dry them, after assuring herself that there were no ink spots or other stain upon them. Then she clipped and trimmed the nails into the approved filbert shape, neither too short nor too long, nor too pointed nor too broad; the ‘halfmoons’ at the base of the nails were gently brought into clear light; all ‘hang-nails’ were amputated; and after this she rubbed a coral-colored pomade of a delicious odor upon the nails and the upper part of all the fingers. After allowing this to remain a little while she wiped it off again, and scattered upon the nails a golden brownish powder, which she vigorously rubbed with the whole length of her powerful forefinger, occasionally aided by the palm. More pomade, more powder, more rubbing, and then the nails were shown with that beautiful gleam upon them, that pearly pinkness, seen in the interior of some delicate sea-shells. As the pedicure had said, the manicure’s manipulations greatly ‘advantaged’ a pretty hand, but even in a greater degree advantaged an ugly one.

“The manicure, like the pedicure, charged forty sous for a sitting, that is, at her own rooms. When she did the visiting, her price was a dollar. That she found her business lucrative was sufficiently indicated by her handsome rooms and her prosperous appearance.”

As in Paris, there are many people of wealth and luxurious disposition in our large cities who would readily avail themselves of the attentions of a manicure, and it is in the nature of things that the establishment of such an art in America would have a tendency to improve the manual habits, so far as neatness is concerned, of our people at large.

The Phrenological journal and science of health, 1878

  • Kelli says:

    My visceral reaction to this was “That’s Eva’s hand! Like, her real, live one as she actually exists right now!” But anyway, in addition to that, a very interesting read.

    • eva says:

      LOL! Yes indeed, that is my hand. And please send me a link to your blog again — since I deleted myself from Facebook, I don’t know how to find it.

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