This post is a little bit different from my usual style because it doesn’t focus on medical history, but rather, on a myth surrounding a death practice supposedly popular during the Victorian era. When I was in college I read a lot about mourning practices in the 19th century but never came across any primary sources describing lachrymatory bottles. Some of you may have stumbled upon online listings for “Victorian tear catchers” or have even seen the delicate glass tubes in antique malls around the world. The most interesting thing about the myth of tear catchers is that it is totally believable considering that mourning was an outward artistic social expression to the Victorians. Alas, the evidence just isn’t there. Let’s discuss the myth anyway!
All sorts of sources across the internet date “tear catchers” to the ancient Roman period and were originally used as a measure of grieving. After a death occurred, friends and family were said to have cried into these bottles and sealed them. Once all the tears evaporated, then the mourning period had officially come to an end. The tear catcher bottles are most associated though with the 19th century thanks to their already romantic mourning rituals. It is said that tears were collected during the funeral process and were either laid in the tomb with the loved one or taken home to time the mourning period. One problem with this theory is that these bottles typically had cork or ill-fitting glass stoppers and the tears would have evaporated quickly. This does not correspond to the rather lengthy periods of mourning, especially for women, that existed during that time.
Some believe that the amount of tears collected would have had a cultural and social significance such as illustrating the individual’s importance while alive. Another story surrounding these objects paints the picture of a saddened wife who cried into bottles over her husband and sons being away at war. Once the men returned, she would gift them with these bottles to show just how honestly they were missed. These stories are all touching and bittersweet, and perhaps that is why so many people are attracted to these “tear catchers.” Sometimes the story is more important than the object itself. If these slender bottles are not actual mourning artifacts though, what are they?
I hate to ruin the magic of these items but most of those bottles are actually the 19th century equivalent of throw-away containers. Most of them were perfume samples or were used for travel. Chemical samples taken from some of these artifacts support this. They would have held a variety of things such as smelling salts, perfumes, floral water, and unguents (ointments/salves). These bottles became more elaborate in their design as the century went on and were given as gifts, served as travel companions, and even bought as souvenirs.
Were these bottles used for tear collecting or is that simply an instance of the internet inventing romantic folklore. Let me know what you think!
Read another one of my object-focused posts HERE!
- Adeleke, Yewande. “Did People Really Put Their Tears in Bottles During The Victorian Era?” History of Yesterday. 18 January, 2022. Accessed 20 May, 2022. https://historyofyesterday.com/did-people-really-put-their-tears-in-bottles-during-the-victorian-era-7a744f661ae7.
- Vatomsky, Sonya. “Debunking the Myth of 19th Century ‘Tear Catchers’.” atlas obscura. 2 May, 2017. Accessed 20 May, 2022. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/tearcatchers-victorian-myth-bottle
- “Victorian Tear Catchers are Trash. Death Scent. Accessed 20 May, 2022. https://deathscent.com/2021/09/28/victorian-tear-catchers-are-trash/.
Until Next Time