Before Clippers, How Did Humans Trim Their Nails?

Before nail clippers, human fingernails were likely worn down through regular daily use, similar to how canine nails are worn down when walked daily on pavement or sidewalk.

Animals have plenty of grooming habits that help them stay healthy and look good for a potential mate, and the same thing can be said of humans! From combing our hair and showering to scraping dry skin from our feet and trimming our beards, we have integrated grooming into every aspect of our appearance. Some people spend hours and hundreds of dollars getting their nails done every month, having them shaped and polished and even extended! Most people simply trim back their nails with rudimentary trimmers that can be found in almost every bathroom in the world.

that feeling when you forget your fingernail meme

Nail maintenance is often different between men and women, but the bottom line remains the same—our nails grow and they need to be trimmed back or managed in some way. The question is, tens of thousands of years ago, human beings still had rapidly growing nails, but without our modern-day tools, how did they keep their fingers looking fresh? What did early humans do before nail clippers?

The History of Nail Clippers


the clipper on the left is in the plier style; the centre and right clippers are in the compound lever style (Photo Credit : Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons)

Before we go too far back in time, let’s take a quick peek at the nail clippers that we do have, whether or not you use them! These days, when you snag a nail on an article of clothing, or notice that your crescent-moon fingertips are starting to clack annoyingly on your phone screen, there are a few obvious solutions. Most people go to the bathroom drawer and find the nail clippers, which typically come in two forms: plier and compound lever. As the name of the former type suggests, this small, stainless steel tool looks like a set of pliers, with two metal levers joined at a fulcrum to create a set of “jaws” that can be accurately placed over a nail to trim it. The compound lever type is more commonly seen, with a manipulable lever that can be rotated into place with a concave clipping end.

Both styles of nail clippers are highly effective, but they have only been around since the 20th century. Even more rudimentary tools had emerged in the late 1870s, but prior to that point, the history of this grooming tool becomes far more murky. Throughout history, there are various literary references to people trimming their nails, but the tool of choice is almost invariably a small pen knife or blade. Depending on your social standing, cultural tradition and place in history, carrying a knife may have been as common as putting on clothes, so carefully trimming back your nails with this readily available tool makes perfect sense.

Going back even further, the references to nails being cut or trimmed dates back to the 8th century BC, so this has clearly been a point of grooming concern for humans for at least 3,000 years! From Roman satirists musing on the nature of trimming one’s nails in their plays to Cleopatra carefully trimming her fingernails and painting them red, fingernail style and maintenance have been around for as long as recorded history.

However, what if we want to go back even further? Before humans developed blades or social expectations of hygiene, how did we handle the inexorably growing nails at the ends of our fingers?

Letting Nature Take Its Course

The answer to this question is quite simple… the fingernails probably took care of themselves. Fingernails are largely made up of keratin, a hardened protein that is also found in the skin and hair. While keratin is hardy and durable, it is far from unbreakable, as any woman with a chipped nail will attest. Similarly, when you clip your nails with any of the clippers explained above, there is some resistance, but they are relatively easy to snip off.

Now, think back 100,000 years, when early humans behaved as hunter-gatherers, engaging in physically demanding activities to survive. Over the course of their normal days, they may have been digging tubers out of the ground, sharpening a rudimentary spear, carrying temporary shelters or trying to start a fire. With all of this manual labor, it is believed that the fingernails would have naturally been worn down and chipped away. The daily demands of survival would have kept the fingernails from growing to unruly or unmanageable lengths. As mentioned above, we see this passive maintenance in other species as well, such as dogs that are often walked on pavement, which gradually wears down their nails, thus requiring fewer nail trimmings at the vet.

please dont take me to the vet meme

If the fingernails of these early humans did break or chip, they likely solved the problem as we do today—giving them a nibble and maybe tugging off the occasional irritating hangnail. Again, we see this same behavior in other species who lick at, soften, and bite their nails when they grow too long.

A Final Word

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Everyone has their own personal preference when it comes to grooming, but the practice itself has been present throughout evolutionary history. Animals have countless ways to keep themselves clean and look good, even trading grooming duties in their hard-to-reach places! Clearly, there is no denying that grooming practices are an intrinsic part of our nature. Whether we get our nails carefully manicured every week or anxiously nibble on our cuticles throughout the day, everyone participates in some form of nail maintenance. Grooming is a hygienic practice that has cultural significance and social underpinnings going back millions of years, so if you often find yourself worried about the state of your nails, don’t worry… it’s completely natural!

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, an arts nonprofit based in Denver. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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