Fingernails and manicures

Nail protectors, China, 19th century

Manicure knife, Nyoro people, Uganda

[b]Left:[/b] Donated by G. A. Wainwright in 1963; 1963.10.76–.77[br][b]Right:[/b] Collected by John Roscoe in 1919 and donated by him in 1920; 1920.101.74Left: Donated by G. A. Wainwright in 1963; 1963.10.76–.77
Right: Collected by John Roscoe in 1919 and donated by him in 1920; 1920.101.74
Fingernails grow at a rate of approximately 2.5 cm (1 inch) per year, and toenails at about half that rate. The word 'manicure' comes from the Latin manus meaning 'hand' and cure meaning 'care' and is something that humans have been doing for thousands of years to ensure our nails do not impede our ability to carry out everyday tasks. In some cultures however, nails were grown deliberately in negation of this principle.

Chinese women have been ornamenting their nails with coloured lacquer for several thousand years. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the favoured shades of nail polish for the elite were red and black. The wearing of fingernail protectors was exclusively associated with the Manchurian high culture of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). Long fingernails became a status symbol among women, visibly indicating that they had no need to engage in manual labour.

Most fingernail protectors presently held in collections date to the late 19th century. These plain wooden ones were worn in bed but those for day wear were often made of luxurious materials such as silver or tortoiseshell and decorated with gold, enamel or precious gems. There are numerous portraits of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) wearing nail protectors on her middle fingers, the nails of which exceeded three inches in length.

The royal manicure knife is one of three collected during the MacKie Ethnological Expedition to Africa in 1919. With a finely polished blade and copper handle, it was used among the royal Bunyoro household (possibly both men and women) to file down nails, the sharp point probably acting as nail-pick or a cuticle remover. Bunyoro is a kingdom of western Uganda and was one of the most important independent states in Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The king, known as the Omukama of Bunyoro, still resides in the Karuziika Palace in Hoima.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England