It seems like every year, my colleagues and I have to dispute the myth of Victorian Tear Catchers. I don’t know how or why disproving internet myths about perfume became my life, but here we are. So let’s go a bit deeper than space would allow in that tweet, and let’s hope I never have to write another word about these things again.
If you go on Pinterest, you will find them. Narrow bottles artfully lined up, styled between funeral cards and daguerreotypes of sour-faced women. These bottles are presented sometimes as Victorian or Civil War tear catchers, used to hold the tears of lost love from a bygone and sentimental age. I’m sorry to say these are not romantic mourning keepsakes. These are Throw-Away bottles aka, disposable perfume bottles. They are the empty Lip Smacker Tubes of the 19th-century.
These bottles were called Throw-Away, or in England some times Oxford Lavender bottles, because they were naive, cheaply produced, ‘disposable’ perfume packaging that one was expected to throw out when finished.
These bottles held perfumes, floral waters, smelling salts and scented vinegars. They also clearly leaked. All deadstock examples I’ve seen are quadruple-sealed: corked, waxed, baudruchaged, and wrapped in wax paper. Still, they showed signs of leakage. So I doubt they were functional for heavy travel after opening.
Throw-Aways got their start in the late 18th-century and were primarily made in England and Bavaria. The older ones are larger and have much more refined details. These more senior examples are the reason Throw-Aways and Lay-Down bottles get confused. Some older Throw-Aways are quite lovely, but they are not crystal, nor have silverplated caps like Lay-Downs. Lay-Down perfume bottles and vinaigrettes were meant to be seen on a dressing table or carried with the person in their pockets or bag. Because of this, Lay-Downs often have screwable or tightly sealing caps to prevent leakage. Throw-Aways just have a glass stopper that is often a poor fit.
These older Throw-Away bottles mainly were given as gifts to patrons to top up their flacons, as samples, or were sold as a refill. It wasn’t meant to be something for display. As much as modern folks love the naive look, wealthy Regency and early Victorian ladies wouldn’t have been caught dead with one on their dressing table. I think it is a testament to how ubiquitous these bottles were that we have so many of them when we know the lion’s share went to the tip. If you muckrake in the Thames estuary long enough, you are bound to find a few.
Most that exist today are not the fancy older ones but date from the 1850s to around 1910. These later 19th-century Throw-Away bottles were primarily produced in Bavaria but also in Turkey. Sadly, the quality drops considerable in later examples, especially on the precision of the decore application and the cavity sizes. These later bottles were explicitly made to export ottos to the European market, and price control was paramount.
In the late 19th-century, Europe was in the grips of a fascination with the East, exotica, and, frankly, Orientalism. Europe wanted spectacle, but they also wanted it brought to their doors and at a reasonable price.
Stopping in Istanbul on one’s Grand Tour and getting some exotic rose otto was the reserve of the patricians, but the middling classes could go to the druggist and get a touch of that travel fantasy too. In these later, smaller import Throw-Away bottles, you got a sliver of product, just a few applications, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the fantasy.
But What About The Tear Catching?
Well, friends, I and the twenty colleagues and journalists I have consulted with have found no historical source that lists these bottles as serving a primary or secondary function as tear catchers or any other sentimental craft.
I have been researching them for a decade and have never found a single mention of a tear catcher custom practised in the Eurocentric world in the 18th or 19th centuries. I’ve seen the idea used as a literary device in poetry and novels, but y’all, many things happen in Gothic romances that don’t happen in real life. Just because 19th-century writers had a metaphor for the futility of measuring immeasurable loss doesn’t mean that translated to actual bottles or real people crying into them.
We don’t see mention of tear catcher use in letters or journals. We don’t see them in DIY craft guides of the time. We don’t see them in catalogues or mourning etiquette manuals. We don’t see people wearing them or holding them in mourning photography. We don’t see adverts selling tear catcher bottles. That is a major red flag as mourning paraphernalia was a huge market in the 19th-century. We have ads for all kinds of mourning and grave goods, so if this was real, why don’t we see them?
But They’re In The Bible!
Some folks like to throw out biblical references at this point in the argument and say, “of course, 19th-century Europeans had tear bottles because they are mentioned once in Psalms. The Victorians were very religious!” My response is, have you read Psalm 56*? That Psalm is about being persecuted and hoping G-d smites your enemies. It isn’t exactly what one would read to comfort a mourner.
Also, the word used in the original Hebrew is נאד, goatskin. It is referring to a leather bladder-style bottle often translated as a wineskin. They didn’t use the word בקבוק, which would refer to a glass or ceramic bottle as the West would understand it. Some translations say waterskin or wineskin, and some say bottle. The visual is far less romantic if we imagine King Solomon crying into a leather bladder.
Regardless Psalm 56 isn’t describing an ancient tear catching custom. The line is Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy wineskin: are they not in thy book? This is once again a metaphorical use of tear catching as a measurement for immeasurable pain. It is not about a historical tear-catching practice among Israelites. There is no evidence I have yet seen to support that position.
But They Found The Bottles!
Well, firstly, a lot of the glass bottles presented online as ancient tear bottles are actual kumkums, aka rosewater dispensers. I can understand that if you are looking at these objects from another culture, you may not automatically decipher their use and try to invent a purpose. Still, anyone from Southwest or Central Asia could show you the same ‘tear catchers’ from their grandmother’s living room. Only they will be full of rose or neroli water, not tears.
A lot of confusion has come around vessels found in graves called lachrymatory vessels. And you know what, fair enough, this one is on us that was a terrible name. However, these too are not tear bottles.
The phrase lachrymatory vessel is an 18th and 19th-century archaeological term for alabaster and glassware found in graves around the Mediterranean. They called them lachrymatory, not because of a presumed practice but because many of the first bottles found were teardrop-shaped. It was not a term used in antiquity to describe these objects or used in modern archaeology today.
There indeed were 19th-century poets that thought ancient people practised tear catching and wrote romantic poetry about it. Again, it’s poetry and suffers the same artistic embellishment as fiction. I have yet to find a primary source saying, “Hey, the ancient Greeks did this cool thing, so you should too.”
Also, the ancient Greeks didn’t. Those tear-dropped shaped grave goods have since been definitively understood to be unguentarium (aka unguent containers)—nothing to do with tears.
Ok, Maybe They Weren’t Made For Tear Catching, But They Could Have Repurposed Them?
So the Biblical reference is shakey, as is the historical precedent, but even just looking at these bottles, you can see they don’t meet 19th-century ideas about mourning.
eBay sellers always describe these bottles as being used as part of an early mourning practice, sometimes said to be given at the funeral. However, they are pretty ostentatious for a funeral favour with their bright flowers and gold gilt.
In early mourning, a widow would not just wear black but matte crepe black fabrics. It’s the same reason they wore jet, bog oak and vulcanite, which could look matte or have a muted lustre. Early mourning is all about sombre and sober decorative choices. Would they really carry around glittery flower-power bottles?
If these were used for mourning, why don’t we see them painted black, with death motifs, or the deceased’s name written on the side of the bottle? If Victorians honestly thought of this, there would be weeping willow and urns all over the place.
If they repurposed them, we would see them refashioned and kept with or in other mourning keepsakes. We see craft memorial pieces of the era that used hair art, mourning photos, funeral cards, and mourning motifs in beadwork, embroidery and ceramics all incorporated together. I’ve seen 19th-century memorial bookmarks made with human hair, but not one tear catcher.
I’ve consulted with experts in 19th-century European, American and Australian material cultures, mourning rituals, Victorian mourning crafts, Victorian hair art, and Victorian mourning jewellery. It all came up the same for them. They found nothing to support an actual practice of bottles used or symbolically presented as tear catchers from the period.
We have primary sources discussing perfume and mourning. We know what scents should and shouldn’t be worn and when. Never once do these manuals mention taking out your otto bottle and crying into it.
Where Are the Later Connections?
Not only do we have no evidence from the time, but we also don’t see a connection between these bottles and mourning until the 1990s in a few less-than-well-researched books. In the 1993 book On Women and Friendship, the below tableau was created and photographed by the author to create a potential scene a Victorian woman may experience. The scene was captioned:
Marble “books”, tokens given by the funeral director to the family, were often engraved with the initials or name of the deceased (page 189). Memorial cards would have been given as a remembrance to friends. A woman in mourning might have worn the bonnet, scarf, necklace, mourning bag, and lavender handkerchief shown. The painted wood finial is from a funeral hearse; the teacup, from a set of mourning china; and the glass vial is a bottle for saving tears.
This is the oldest print source I have found connecting Throw-Aways to mourning. However, this is an artistic interpretation of what might have been or what a mourner could have seen, not a historical reconstruction. No sources are listed for the assumptions of any of the might haves. The scarf and teacup also don’t look like mourning paraphernalia to me, either. There was such a thing as mourning tea sets, but they weren’t white and pink. Mostly they were black and blue with phrases like Remember Me on them. Lavender was worn in later mourning, but it wasn’t bright. These seem more like pops of colour in an otherwise beige scene.
If this were a real folkway with actual tear bottles, it would be valuable to have connecting documentation from later eras. Things like appraisals and collectors assessments would help. Perhaps an explanation as to why these bottles were sold exclusively as perfume bottles for one hundred years and then in the late 90s early 00s became tear catchers. I guess we fanatical perfume bottle collectors just got bamboozled for a century until Etsy resellers came along and educated us.
I’ve been trying to map the online evolution of this myth since 2017. From my own sleuthing and help from friends, we were able to pull things back to one of the oldest and most influential sources of the myth online. While I can’t prove definitively that this is the tale’s originator, its footprint across the internet has certainly been impactful.
Tear Catcher Gifts, a company that sells modern tear bottles, and Timeless Traditions, a related company that sells the same tear bottles wholesale to funeral homes, sponsored the founding of Lachrymatory.com. The oldest crawl the Wayback Machine had for Lachrymatory.com is September 22, 2002. The information presented has essentially been unchanged in the last 20 years.
In my professional opinion, the information on this site is of poor academic quality. It is also the oldest online source I could find for many specific flavours presented in the online myth of the tear catcher. For instance, the story of tear bottles used by wives whose husbands are fighting in the Civil War seems to originate here. Copies of Lachrymatory.com’s images and text can be found all over the internet. Many, I’m sure, don’t even know they are quoting this source. Some just outright copied and pasted. Here is Lachrymatory.com’s copy, and here is just one example of the many duplicates.
While they call themselves the Tear Bottle Information Site, Lachrymatory.com as a source is questionable, in my opinion. Images are used as historical examples but not properly cited; pages list stories without citations or fictional representations as evidence of historical practice. They also show a slew of bottles with obvious and known origins.
For instance, the page devoted to Victorian tear catchers depicts a well-known novelty nipper flask shaped like a cigar. The Foust Whiskey Distillery produced these in Glenrock, Pennsylvania, between 1850 and 1890. Yet Lachrymatory.com says it’s a cigar-style tear bottle designed to make tear catching more acceptable to men. By that logic, they should have listed the turkey, banana, gun, and fish flasks as tear catchers too.
People have been collecting Foust novelty flasks since the company went out of business during Prohibition. So either the legions of whiskey dads that collect and meticulously catalogue Foust novelty bottles are wrong, or maybe this ‘source’ has no idea what it is talking about. My money is on the whiskey dads.
It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were just one online seller and their strange self-citation page. However, Lachrymatory.com’s inaccurate information was cited on Wikipedia for years.
Ladies And Gentlemen, Let’s Weclome To The Stage, Wikipedia!
I’m fascinated by the revision history of the lachrymatory Wikipedia page. I’ve followed this page for years, and it has been a mess, riddled with inaccurate information.
I find it really interesting that in 2006 when it was just a stub, the lachrymatory wiki was pretty accurate. Then a user named, surprisingly enough, Lachrymatory, edited the page three times. They provided the bulk of the page’s early information in 2007. Strangely, this was this wiki editor’s first edit. It’s almost like they set up their account just to make this page. It’s also funny how they worked so hard on this wiki and then only did two other edits a decade later.
All of the data cited on the wiki: lachrymatory sourced by user: Lachrymatory was from…you guessed it….Lachrymatory.com. The two external links this wiki editor provided were to Lachrymatory.com and Tear Catcher Gifts’ business page.
Now I have no way of knowing who edited the page in 2007. It very well could have been someone with no connections to this business or website that saw sites as a reliable sources. It seems a surprisingly beneficial edit for this company, though. Still, I would hope a business would not manipulate community resources and intentionally misinform the public for something as pedestrian as page views, so I will assume the best until I know otherwise.
Wikipedia Is Now Joined By Her Good Friends Etsy and eBay!
For almost ten years, this information was on the wiki and became legitimate due to people’s trust in Wikipedia.** With this development, it wasn’t long before online antique sellers began citing this information. On sites like Etsy and eBay, where sellers didn’t expect a knowledgeable clientele, things went wild, and by the early 2010s, people were inventing whole rituals with no foundation in reality.
My favourite is the story that goes a little something like this, ‘they wore the bottle betwixt their breasts. Always close to their heart and at hand should the tears begin to flow. When all the tears evaporated into salt, only then would the widow know her mourning was over. She would journey one last time to poured her widow’s salt upon the grave.”
Oh yes, women just walked around with a 20 cm glass rod between their titties and never said a word. My question, again and again, is, where is the primary source? Would you please show me the primary source?
I would love to be proved wrong, so show me the primary source that can corroborate that one woman did this once, let alone that this was an established mourning custom on four continents that just no one bothered to write down.
But customers don’t ask for primary sources, and those stories sold. Throw-Away bottles that went for $25-$45 were now Civil War Tear Catcher Booby Rods holding the salt remains of lost love! With that, a low quality 1905 bottle with no stopper all of a sudden is worth $200.
But MAAAAYYYBEEE…you say
Sure, maybe. History is fluid and dynamic, not static. New finds can always change our notions about a period, but they must be grounded in solid research and primary sources, not things we want to be true. I think we can definitively say there was no standard custom of tear catcher bottles in 19th-century Western Europe. Could we find a one-off, excentric example one day? Maybe, I don’t discredit the possibility, but even if we find that one Victorian lady trying to put her tears in a bottle, it doesn’t make it a cultural institution. That one Russian nail account exists but doesn’t represent actual trends in nail art.
If someone has an example of a non-fiction 19th-century source discussing tear bottle use, I would sincerely love to see it. Until then, we can pretty confidently say this is an internet myth and put it to bed.
*57 in the Latin Vulgate
**The wiki has since had all of the Lachrymatory.com copy scrubbed. With a particularly savage note in the edits by editor Scott, ” Remove last vestige of material from completely unreliable website”.
- Debunking the Myth of 19th-Century ‘Tear Catchers’
- Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle
- Catching Feelings: The Myth of Victorian-Era Tear Catchers
- The Chronology and Function of Ceramic Unguentaria
- Billy Foust and a Banana Full of Whiskey
- On women & friendship
- Learn About Persian Rosewater Sprinklers
- Antique Victorian Gilded Attar Throwaway Perfume Bottle
- Throwaway Scent Bottles
- Tear Bottles: Sentimental Gift or Genius Marketing Ploy?
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