Debunking the Myth of 19th-Century ‘Tear Catchers’

Victorians were known for leaving behind some weird accessories, like mustache guards, lobster bustles, and tussie-mussies. And they were big on ritualized mourning. So when you see a bottle that purports to be a Victorian tear catcher, it just seems to fit right in with what you know. Victorians in mourning, it was said, stored their tears in a small bottle. When the tears started evaporating faster then they were collected, that meant that period of mourning was over. But in reality, there is no such thing as a Victorian tear catcher.

“People ask to buy them all of the time. At least a few people a week,” says Christian Harding, owner of The Belfry, an oddities and collectibles store in Seattle. Harding then must explain that the bottles most are looking for—blown, usually clear, glass decorated with patterns, gilding, and colorful enamel—are throwaway perfume bottles. But the “tear catcher” term has stuck, through a combination of historical accident and deceptive, yet effective, marketing.

The myth likely began with archaeologists and an oddly chosen term. Small glass bottles were often found in Greek and Roman tombs, and “early scholars romantically dubbed [them] lachrymatories or tear bottles,” writes Grace Elizabeth Arnone Hummel, who runs the perfume website Cleopatra’s Boudoir. Those glass bottles held perfume and unguents, not tears, Hummel explains. “Scientists have performed chemical tests on these flasks and they disproved the romantic theory.” But stories sometimes acquire their own momentum.

The idea of bottling up one's tears is just too good of a story to NOT use in marketing. Read about how tear catchers came about at Atlas Obscura.
   
(Image credit: Katie Kierstead/Roses & Rue Antiques)
 


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