Victorian Manicures, for historical costuming, or judging people 1880’s style.

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Perhaps you want to complete your amazing Victorian outfit with an authentic Victorian manicure, or perhaps you’re just a massive history nerd (fist bump for that) and are curious as to what a Victorian manicure looked like.

While Victorian women did not use nail polish (mostly for the same reasons they didn’t use cell phones- it hadn’t been invented yet), they most certainly did their nails. Victorian manicure sets ranged from the highly practical to the beautifully ornate. This is a mother of pearl manicure set from the late 18th century- the hooks are button hooks so that you wouldn’t mess up your nails on the zillions of buttons commonly found in Victorian clothing, but you can see the nail file, under nail pics, and cuticle pushers and snips were already well known tools.

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Victorian mother of pearl manicure set

This manicure set from around 1900 has a cuticle pusher, button hook, nail file and nail brush. It’s less fancy but still nicer than anything I own!

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Manicure set circa 1900

Victorian ladies did not grow their nails out as long as we do today, it was considered a bit vulgar. They prefered shorter (to us, at least) nails, with an oval or gentle almond shape. Their cuticles were pushed back and the nails were carefully filed, and then buffed with a leather buffer. The nails were kept scrupulously clean, not only out of a fad for hygiene, since this is the era where everyone figured out that germs get you sick (but not quite what to do about it, yet! Hello, Cholera epidemic, I’m looking at YOU!), but also to show that you didn’t work. Most of the time when you left the house, if you had any money or status at all, your hands were in gloves. Geri Walton’s historical costuming site has a lovely post about gloves and glove etiquette, but the best way to explain it is that all the love and madness current nail artists express with their polish, was done with gloves before nail polish existed. Gloves were worn in hot or cold weather, and there were all sorts of ways to make them fancier or plainer, and they were a pretty big deal.

That’s not to say that ladies ignored their nails- oh, no, quite the opposite, because having nice hands was a big status symbol. To the point where some women went so far as to refuse to knock on doors because it might ‘coarsen’ their hands, so they had servants do it. And the shape, size, and curve of your nails were all highly judged- this is the era where people still thought the shape of your skull could predict your profession and that men were naturally, obviously smarter than women because they have bigger foreheads and receding hairlines (I wish I was joking). Having fat tipped or stubby fingernails indicated that you were a hard working, but dull person, unsuited for true refinement.

Much angst and Victorian advice columns were written about what to do if you had fat hands, and instead of calling the preferred nail shape oval, they were named after a nut, much like our modern almond nails. The victorians were slightly obsessed with Filbert Nails, also known as Hazelnut nails, for the shape. You can’t blame them for being obsessed with hazelnuts for the wrong reason- the right one being Nutella, which I swear is chocolate-hazelnut-crack-cocaine levels of addictive delicious, because like cell phones and nail polish, Nutella wasn’t invented until 1940, so they had to go without.

Don’t get too upset, they didn’t know what they were missing out on!

A historical perspective from the Victorians on nails is from The Finger: A Handbook By Angus Trumble:

Beautiful nails should be looked upon as a precious gift. They should have a white crescent at the root, and should be as rosy as the dawn. Pretty nails have been compared to onyx by the poets- and, indeed, in Greek, onyx means nail…The women who have recourse to manicures will tell you that the ugliest nails can be improved by taking the trouble to push the hard skin that grows at the base: an operation which should never be done except after soaping the hands in warm water, and by means of an ivory or bone implement. The edges of the nail should also be filed in a gentle curve, following the outline of the finger-end. The surface of the nail, too, should be polished.

A variety of powders were used and the nails were generally buffed with a leather buffer. I have one, somewhere in my house, but I haven’t seen it since I’ve moved and haven’t been bothered to replace it, or honestly look that hard for it- a standard buffing block does the same job in a lot less time.

So, if you want an authentic (or authentic looking) Victorian mani, here are the steps:

  1. Soak your nails in warm, soapy water.
  2. Push back the living cuticle, and get rid of all the skin that sticks to the nail.
  3. File your nails in a nice oval.
  4. Buff the nails to a glorious shine. Your fingernails should shine like justice.
  5. Clear out the underside of your nail and push back the skin to give yourself a dainty look.
  6. Pray you’re a light skinned, non-fat-fingered, white person with pink nail beds, a decent half moon, and largeish nails with a moderate C-curve, otherwise you’re ugly, and the only way to fix it is with nail torture devices meant to make the tips of your fingers look more delicate, that do not work. Oh, and you’re not only ugly, but you’re probably thick, dumb, and unrefined as well. And possibly a slut. No judgement, though. (Haha, just kidding, the Victorian era was the OPPOSITE of a judgement free zone!)
  7. Almond oil around the cuticles, and lots of lotions, only half of which are actually, you know… poisonous. Stick with the almond oil for modern mani’s.

So, what would a successful Victorian mani look like? Something like these:

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This is as long as you could possibly go with your nails without being considered a raging slatternly strumpet slutty slut face. Beautiful oval shape, but not buffed enough, and this woman does not have big half moons at the base of her nails, so there’s no telling if she’ll enjoy the Opera an appropriate amount.
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This is the right length, and her nails are buffed to a high shine, which is EXACTLY Victorian perfect, but her nails are too square for a Victorian mani. The image is a finely-crafted link to her blog where she explains how to buff your nails.

If you’re wondering why I am not doing a Victorian mani on my fingers, given that I have pink nail beds and deep half moons at the base, there’s a few good reasons for that. One, I have natural nails and they are long enough to make me a RAGING SLUT WHORE or even worse, a potentially FRENCH SLUT WHORE by Victorian England standards. I’m not chopping my nails down for this, but I might do this if I break a nail, at some point. Two, I am a nail polish addict and my nails are yellowed a bit, so I’d have to buff the hell out of them to get them to look right, and three, I’m laaaaaaazy and don’t wanna.

I grabbed photos with watermarks so if you want to check out the sites of these lovely, non-lazy ladies stuff.

TL;DR: For a historically accurate Victorian era or Steampunk manicure:

  1. Short, oval nails
  2. Fastidious cuticle grooming
  3. Buff using a buff block
  4. Lots of judgement and/or shame

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