Fingernail Trimming History: What We Did Before Nail Clippers (2023)

Today in Tedium: Fingernails have a functional purpose—they’re shells for our fingertips—but they sure come with an annoying side effect. That effect? The fact that, every couple of weeks you have to cut them. No matter who you are, you have to go through this process where small pieces of your keratin fly everywhere because you’re shoving them in a nail clipper. By the way, did you know that nail clippers are a fairly new phenomenon, roughly as old as the Swiss Army Knife? How did we cut our nails before that? Today’s Tedium explains the history—and pre-history—of the nail clipper. — Ernie @ Tedium

Fingernail Trimming History: What We Did Before Nail Clippers (1)

Fingernail clipper patent, Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz, circa 1881. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

How did people cut fingernails before fingernail clippers? (Warning: Rabbit hole)

Fingernail clippers are a bit of an enigma on the invention front.

Clear answers about the history of trimmed fingernails don’t really show themselves unless you’re willing to do some digging. (Fortunately, that’s what this newsletter is all about.)

It’s not clear who invented the modern fingernail clipper, but patents started to appear for fingernail trimmers around 1875.

The man credited by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office with the first such trimmer was named Valentine Fogerty, though the design of his device could best be described as a circular nail file rather than a keratin clip. The first design in the USPTO’s files that I could find that could be described as having anything in common with modern designs came from inventors Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz, who were granted a patent for a clamp-style fingernail clipper in 1881.

A better hint of how fingernails were cut before the days of fingernail trimmers comes from the patent for R.W. Stewart’s finger-nail cutter, which doesn’t work like a modern day clipper. The design, in fact, has more in common with peeling an apple than pressing a clamp.

(Video) How Did Ancient Humans Cut Their Nails Without Nail Clippers?

And if you’ve ever used a paring knife to peel an apple, that’s how fingernails were cut before there was a designated tool for it, whether using an actual knife or small scissors. In fact, based on a look through Google Books for any and all references to the cutting of fingernails, terms like “trim” or “cut” generally weren’t used to describe the process until the 19th century. Before that, we described the process as “paring.”

But that only gets us back two centuries. Where do we go after that?

Well, since we don’t have a firm backing for a lot of this historic stuff, literature is a helpful friend, as it can suggest the ways that things were discussed during certain historic eras.

Going back to the 18th century, for example, Irish dramatist George Farquhar’s 1702 work The Twin Rivals makes a reference to nail-paring in this way.

Here’s a rough translation of the specific passage to something resembling modern English: “… I found another very melancholy paring her Nails by Rosamond's Pond,— and a Couple I got at the Chequer Alehouse in Holboure; the two last came to Town yesterday in a Weft-Country Waggon.”

Going back further, we know a few other things about fingernails—for example, that they emphasized status during China’s Ming Dynasty. Regarding the latter: Basically, you had long nails if you never did hard labor, but often wore your nails short if you did. (That touches on another point about nail length: The more physical labor you do, the more likely your nails are going to be short.)

But where did our interest in well-cared-for fingernails come from in the first place? The ancient Romans, to be specific.

Fingernail Trimming History: What We Did Before Nail Clippers (2)

(Video) How It's Made - Nail Clippers

Roman satirist Horace.

Again, the evidence there comes from literature. The satirist Horace repeatedly touched upon fingernails in his works. In the work Satires, dated 35 B.C., Horace came up with the idiom of biting one’s fingernails out of nervousness (or as he put it, with some modernization, “… in the composition of verses, would often have scratched his head, and bit his nails to the quick.”)

But a later work, the first book of Epistles (circa 20 BC), offers up the largest historic hint. In a passage where he introduces an auctioneer, he also makes reference to the process of nail trimming in ancient barber shops. A modern reference from Poetry in Translation:

Philippus the famous lawyer, one both resolute

And energetic, was heading home from work, at two,

And complaining, at his age, about the Carinae

Being so far from the Forum, when he noticed,

A close-shaven man, it’s said, in an empty barber’s

(Video) The Parts of Nail Clippers

Booth, penknife in hand, quietly cleaning his nails.

Also in Horace's time was a pivotal moment in the history of nail polish. Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra, who lived between 69 and 30 B.C., was known for using the juice of henna plants to paint her nails in a rust-red color—and due to the social code of the time, she was one of the few to dye her nails red.

Going even further back, there’s a reference to trimming fingernails in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 21:12), replete with some ancient gender politics. Per the New American Standard translation:

“When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.

So based on all that, we’re talking about a written acknowledgement of fingernail-trimming that dates back to, roughly, the eighth century B.C.—a date far before Valentine Fogerty’s existence.

Before that, odds are good that hard labor played a major role in keeping fingernails short.

Or maybe, just maybe, our ancestors bit them down to size.

Fingernail Trimming History: What We Did Before Nail Clippers (3)

The fairly imposing Antioch Clipper.

Five attempts to make a better nail clipper

  1. Do your toenail clippers need giant handles so they don’t keep falling out of your hands? If so, the well-reviewed Bezox Precision Toenail Clippers might be your ticket. Maybe they’re overkill, but so are your toenails.
  2. One of the problems with standard-size fingernail clippers is that one hand is often stronger than the other, meaning that when your non-dominant hand cuts, it’s more likely to slip, making it more likely to bend a nail. A potential solution the the problem comes in the form of a rotary nail clipper, which turns the clamping motion on its side.
  3. Combining the first two items in a wacky way is the Antioch Clipper, a device introduced in 2011 to make it possible to clip toenails without bending over at the waist—which may be of benefit in some cases, but lends itself to a design that is best described as a combination nail clipper and pair of tongs.
  4. Nail-clipping luxury: Do you really need the world’s best nail clipper at your disposal, as the Khlip Ultimate Clipper describes itself? Perhaps not, even though it “gives you increased control and leverage as you trim your nails” due to its award-winning design. A Gizmodo review really says it all: “The Klhip Ultimate Nail Clipper Is Ultimately Just Expensive.”
  5. The Indiegogo route: The Vanrro V1, a futuristic nail clipper, is looking for support on the crowdfunding site, though the term clipper is actually a misnomer—it’s really a nail grinder, kinda like the kind they sell for dogs. But the attempt has only raised $210 so far, and a similar effort shut down with no notice whatsoever last month. Hey, at least the clippers don’t support IFTTT.
(Video) History of Nail Clipper

Fingernails (and likewise, toenails) aren’t like belly buttons, a minor part of the human body with little to no use in our day to day lives.

Our nails may be minor, but they’re often the last line of defense between us and a lot of pain. They can even serve important functional purposes. Guitarists, for example, often need strong nails to pick strings and strum. But good nails aren’t always easy to pull off.

Fortunately, there’s an expert on the guitar fingernail topic. In 2005, guitarist Rico Stover wrote a book titled The Guitarist’s Guide to Fingernails, in which he describes his frustrations as a guitarist with weak fingernails and his ways of getting around the problem. Soon after, Stover created a website called, which features his artificial “Riconails” system—including an “emergency nail kit,” in case your tips aren’t cutting it during your Dave Matthews Cover Band’s big show.

“Anyone can grow good natural nails if they know what to do, when to do it, and why to do it,” he writes on his site.

It’s good to know that there’s someone else besides me who’s thought seriously about fingernails for any significant length of time.

(Video) How Did People Cut Their Toenails Before Clippers? (Mystery Hour)


Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that fingernail clippers aren't allowed on planes. As it turns out, that's not the case. The story has been updated to reflect that. We regret the error.


What did early humans do their nails? ›

Chances are that prehistoric people didn't need to cut their toenails: while they were walking around barefooted, their nails would have been naturally abraded by contact with the ground. This is why toenails continue growing throughout our lives.

What is the history of fingernail clippers? ›

Around 1875, patents for the modern nail clipper began to appear, with the first such trimmer, designed by a man named Valentine Fogerty, though the design of his device could best be described as a circular nail file rather than a keratin clip.

How did early humans deal with fingernails? ›

There have been various literary references to people cutting their nails throughout history, but the tool of choice is almost always a small penknife or a blade. Depending on social status, cultural tradition, and place in history, carrying a knife may have been as common as putting on clothes.

How did people cut their nails before knives? ›

Breaking your nails was another alternative, letting them grow in order to break them at a certain point and afterward remove it with your hands or re-cut it with a knife. Also, sandpaper materials were useful, you could always remove the nail by using sandpaper. This was useful for the toenails.

How did caveman trim nails? ›

They could theoretically have used a flint edge to trim them, or a rough stone to file them down. However, we don't have any firm evidence of 'cavemanicure' at all, since no fingernails or toenails survive from any Stone Age burial sites.

How did Native Americans trim their nails? ›

If their nails did need trimming, I suppose they either bit them off or trimmed them with a small, sharp stone tool. As for abscessed teeth, Native Americans had all sorts of herbal remedies that probably varied depending on the local flora.

How did Romans trim their fingernails? ›

The barber's equipment included shears, razors, small-blade knives, tweezers and a curved scoop for cleaning dirt under the nails. It's not clear which implement did the actual cutting, but the small knife seems to be the easiest to wield safely.

How did cowboys cut their toenails? ›

They as Hunter-Gathers did until recently - as did everyone else, used stones to grind down the nail or less commonly used stone tools to trim.

How did peasants cut nails? ›

They cut them with a small sharp knife; file them with a piece of hard pumice; polish them with fine clay rubbing compound. They didn't cut the cuticle, they pushed it back with a piece of wood after soaking. Natural paints were used, and had to be touched up pretty often.

What did nails look like in the 1800s? ›

Until about 1800, nails were hand-forged – tapered square shafts and hand-hammered heads. During the 1800's, cut nails have tapered rectangular shafts and rectangular heads. In the 1900's, the round wire nail with straight sides and a round head are the standard.

When were cut nails first used? ›

These nails were known as cut nails because they were produced by cutting iron bars into rods; they were also known as square nails because of their roughly rectangular cross section. The cut-nail process was patented in America by Jacob Perkins in 1795 and in England by Joseph Dyer, who set up machinery in Birmingham.

How did they make nails in the 1800s? ›

Nails in the 19th Century

These nails were made one by one by a blacksmith or nailer from a square iron rod. After heating the rod in a forge, the nailer would hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point; the pointed nail rod was then reheated and cut off.

How did Vikings cut their toenails? ›

How did Vikings cut their nails? They cut them with a small sharp knife; file them with a piece of hard pumice; polish them with fine clay rubbing compound. They didn't cut the cuticle, they pushed it back with a piece of wood after soaking. Natural paints were used, and had to be touched up pretty often.

How did ancient Egyptians clip their nails? ›

Well, they had scissors, for one (since around 1500BC!) so that may explain the trimming — if they did, since in some cultures long nails were the fashion of the wealthy. If you weren't wealthy, your nails would probably break anyway, and you wouldn't maintain them.

Did early humans have nails? ›

It showed that ancient primates had specialised grooming claws as well as nails, overturning the prevailing assumption that the earliest primates had nails on all their digits and explaining an important part of human evolutionary story.

When did humans start painting their nails? ›

Nail polish originated in China as early as 3000 BC.

In Ancient Egypt, nail polish was even used to signify class rankings: The lower class often wore nude and light colors, while high society painted their nails red.

How do monkeys trim their fingernails? ›

That's because the way they choose to groom their nails is ultimately a matter of personal preference: biting works, as does simply waiting for the nails to grow too long and break off on their own.

What culture did nails come from? ›

The Chinese are often credited with creating the first “nail polish”, in 3,000 BC. Women soaked their nails in a combination of egg whites, gelatine, beeswax and dyes from flower petals; roses and orchids were the most popular. The result was shiny nails tinted reddish pink.


1. Inventor Clips Multiple Fingernails at Once - Invention Rejections
2. A forgotten technology from the old days of woodworking! (Cut nails)
(Stumpy Nubs)
3. Why he cut his nails after 66 years - Guinness World Records
(Guinness World Records)
4. Changing a Blade on a Guillotine-Style Nail Clipper - Gina's Grooming
(Gina's Grooming)
5. Top 5 Best Nail Clippers in 2020
(Review Click)
6. How To Clip Dog Nails - Professional Dog Training Tips
(McCann Dog Training)


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