"Hands across the table": A short history of the manicurist in the twentieth century

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In the 1990s, Vietnamese- and Korean-owned nail salons quickly transformed the professional manicure and pedicure from a luxury of the rich to a working- and middle-class beauty routine. Accompanying the popularity of nail salons, however, were fears of "un-American" business practices threatening the safety if not the respectability of the clientele. From products to procedures, Asian nail techs, in particular, captured the attention of skeptics and beauty patrons who were attracted to yet concerned about their newfound beauty retreat. While neatly manicured nails have long symbolized respectability and class distinction, the history of the manicurist has remained complicated throughout the twentieth century. More specifically, the manicurist, like the nail tech today, has struggled for autonomy and respect in popular culture and on the shop floor. This article examines that struggle along with the ways intimacy and identity shaped the history of the manicurist, whose touch reasserted even as it challenged the otherness of race, class, and nationality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-80+192
JournalJournal of Women's History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2005


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