Historical Novels and Nail Polish

One of my biggest time drains and frustrations is picking covers for my novels. I have sifted through literally thousands and thousands of pictures–passing up ones that would be fine, if only the lady wasn’t wearing nail  polish!


It’s not as historically inaccurate as you might think.

While it’s not hard to believe someone like Cleopatra might have found some sort of dye to stain her nails, the trend did not die there until Revlon presented Nail Lacquer in 1932.

No, for centuries women did dye their nails–but only those of royalty or upper class were allowed to use dark or bold colors, while those of a lesser social standing had to stick with pale hues. But, this particular rule faded in 1830 with the introduction of the first official emory board, which then allowed women of all statuses to have their nails manicured.

So if this isn’t historically inaccurate, why don’t we see more heroines with colored nails on book covers? Because this is one of those “assumed inaccuracies”, meaning the majority of people don’t know that such a thing was common back then. People do judge books by their covers and if the cover appears to look inaccurate, many will pass it right up for the next in line. Plus, frankly, it does look kind of odd since, in general, we don’t really think about people in the 1800s having their nails painted.

For other fun facts about the history of manicures and nail polish, go watch this video.

Who Knew? is one of my favorite sources for fun historical trivia. They way they present it is quick, fun, very informative and highly entertaining at times.

11 thoughts on “Historical Novels and Nail Polish”

  1. That would be one of my dream jobs….working at a company like OPI and making up names for nail polish….LOL. That is a really cool video. Cleopatra was an original fashion icon wasn’t she??

    1. I think I’d like to mix the colors to come up with a new shade. I used to do that when I was younger. I had half a dozen film containers and would use them to mix colors in. Never named them, though.

      Oh Cleopatra certainly blazed the trail for many things that are important for us modern-day women–I can think of another I heard about at RT…

  2. Great tip… thanks Rose. I see your dilemma with the covers. Historical readers tend to be a know-it-all-ish group. Much more difficult to deal with than say… sci-fi readers. You can tell those people anything and they will believe it. I better not get started on time travel books and movies… Hey, I just solved your problem… Make your heroine time travel to Cleopatra’s court, have her nails dyed, and then pop back into Regency England. No one will question that at all…

    I just reread the above and I’ve decided that I better not leave comments after a sleepless night. I’m in an odd humor.

    1. LOL Darah, I’ll have to remember your time travel tip for a future book.

      I hope you’re able to catch up on sleep soon.

      (By the way, odd humor is always welcome here!!)

  3. Very interesting. I just read a book in the last couple of weeks where the girls nails were polished or dyed and that made me wonder when all that came about. Of course I didn’t bother to look it up, I just assumed the author knew what she was writing about.
    Funny thing about nail polish is that I have one of the sweetest real stories about my grandparents, who are no longer living, that involves nail polish that I thought I would one day use in one of my stories. They were married in 1940 so now I know that nail polish hadn’t been around too long before the real story takes place..

    1. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I love it!!

      I imagine there weren’t a lot of color choices in 1940–but still, the basic red and pink is all some people ever use.

      1. Knowing my grandmother it was probably red.

        I was thinking today that you should address the history of women shaving. Probably one of the biggest problems I have with historical romance is the soft smooth legs. I didn’t think women shaved back then, so wouldn’t their legs and underarms for that matter have been hairy? I imagine that the hair would have been fine since it hadn’t been shaved but since dark haired people have dark hair on their arms I would imagine it would be dark on the legs. Even some of my more beaitiful friends have very hairy arms. I also know some people, like myself, have almost non existant hair on their arms. Anyway, it is just one if those things I think about when reading. Of course it is fiction and maybe in fiction world women don’t have hairy arms and legs. Kind of like sex not being messy, you don’t want to get me started on that. Glad you addressed it in Secondhand.

      2. I can’t remember where I put this…either it was here in a draft or very, very sugar coated in a post or might have been an email…anyway, I’ve come to learn that people only want historical accuracy when it’s chivalrous and respectable. Not necessarily when it’s unflattering or unglamorous–no matter how true it is. As Sarah mentioned, hairy legs, arm pits, and even hairy arms were common. I once read that shaving didn’t become popular until the world was at war in the 1900s and things like silk stockings had to be compromised. I don’t know this to be true and will certainly make a note to look it up and do a post. But the fact is, in terms of how the people spoke eloquently, the rules/customs of the time period, and even the fashion. However, things like body hair, bad breath and teeth, body odor, etc are historical accuracies people don’t want to be reminded of–this is where the book becomes a fantasy (just like the heroine having one or more orgasms every time she has sex–even the first time). It all works together: eloquent speech, manners and social graces from then, but today’s standards of living. That’s what makes the fantasy, I suppose.

        I’m glad you liked my addressing the mess in sex in that book. I must admit though, had that not been crucial to the plot and a huge part of his overcoming the past and her breaking down his last defenses, it wouldn’t have been in there as it doesn’t fall into the “fantasy” that the modern reader expects.

      3. I really loved a lot of things about Secondhand including Patrick’s first wife’s aversion to sex. That is an all to common thing as well. It’s just nice to see some real life in fiction sometimes. I have read some romance books where the couple doesn’t stay in bed and drift off to sleep in each others arms, but instead clean up and then sleep. I could go on with this subject forever so I think I will stop there.
        Of course you have to know that I spent my high school years until just a couple years ago only reading Christian fiction where the couple gets married they go off on their wedding night and the door closes and the rest is left to the imagination.

        I just have to comment on the body odor part of things that aren’t included in most romance books. I always have to laugh when the hero is described as having an outdoor scent or something like that because my husband and I often quarrel over this because I cannot stand the smell of him or anyone for that matter when they come inside after spending time out in the sun. It’s not a sweaty smell but it’s definitely not a scent I like. Even my father in-law got in on the discussion one time saying that some women find that smell very appealing. So it’s just one of those things that makes me smile when I read it.

  4. Rose, I figure not having nail polish on the heroin is in the same catagory as what gender the color pink is associate with. I have read books by authors that are renowned for their ‘historical accuracy’ that will use refer to pink as a girl color back in the Regency. That is one of those things that people assume. Although I would think in this day and age if you found the pefect photo you could photoshop the nail polish out?

    1. This post wasn’t made because of my own being bashed–I honestly had no idea how common it was to have dyed nails at the time of my books, so I, too, thought those pictures to be inaccurate. But even still, now that I know nail polish in one form or another existed back then, I won’t tempt fate and purposely find someone with bright nails to go on the cover. (FYI–photoshop is tricky and some people can make shocking modifications. I, however, am not one of them and attempting to change the color of someone’s nails would make me nervous.)

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