I’ve had this article on my to-write list for months — tear catchers or “lachrymatories,” those gilded vials you often see next to mourning wreaths and crushed velvet capelets, are the very height of romanticism. During the Victorian Era, it’s said, the grieving would weep into the delicate containers which turn up now and then in estate sales and gloomy, cobwebbed corners of the Internet for quite a pretty penny. The grieving would weep and, when the tears dried up, well… it was time to move on.
Sounds heart-rending, right?
Adding another layer of misery is my own sadness. Vasily, my mother’s sweet cat that nephew Mitya rescued from a lab and took up to Seattle when the landlord of his cat-free apartment would not accept a bribe — this sounds like a movie, right? — this cat, Vasily, our very good boychik who has overseen a decade of dinner parties with the best and sweetest purr despite his tattooed ear, his missing teeth and spleen — what was the lab even doing? — this gentle boy was diagnosed with cancer and then — poof! — ceased existing. That’s it. The end of a life. And you sit in a circle with hands folded on laps and wonder, what even happened?
The trouble with grief is it does not end. It winds down our past to rewrite old memories, pulling apart seams that held and threading together what never connected, then doubling back to the present and striking out full force. Tragedy makes its own truth; patches up broken relationships and repairs woulds and coulds so we can look back if not with a sense of ease then with a sense of justice. What does any of this have to do with tear catchers? They too, it seems, were born of sadness — but not that of the Victorians. Tear catchers, it appears, may be much more recent than that.
If you do a brief search for “tear catcher” or “lachrymatory” you’ll find a few references, sure. Supposedly such bottles were used in Persia, in Roman times, in the Bible, after the Civil War, and so on. But it stops there. No scholarly works have been written. The dearth of information, even misinformation, is — according to a 2011 blog post at Victorian Gothic, incredibly suspicious: “Google Books searches reveal no discussion of the lachrymatory custom in etiquette manuals, nor do they appear in product catalogs. There are seemingly no unambiguous descriptions of real or fictional characters making actual use of a tear bottle as a normal part of Victorian mourning practice.”
“If there was a practice of tear collecting during the Victorian period,” Victorian Gothic concludes, “it is certainly not very well documented.” So what is it that we are passing around as so-called antique tear catchers? Cleopatra’s Boudoir, a site dedicated to perfumes, lists several culprits. Many of the bottles are simple flasks for “scented vinegars, smelling salts, perfumes and toilet waters to scent handkerchiefs.” The remainder — the 7″-8″ long vials with a stopper, often gilded with spirals and crosshatching over the clear or candy-colored glass — are “throwaways,” little containers of attar of rose or oxford lavender sold at spas, fairs, and shops. They were effectively “to go” containers for scent which would later be decanted into personal bottles.
It’s convincing evidence and, in the absence of anything else, seems damning: we’ve extrapolated the poetry of our own sorrows onto the Victorians, imbuing their trinkets with romantic symbolism we experience vicariously. In a culture that denies death and chides outbursts of emotions, the Victorians must emote for us, their dramatic gestures sustaining us in our moments of need. For grief is, as Victorian Gothic says, “more often often a dull pain, a lingering sense of absence that never fully disappears, and that is all together too pervading and intangible to be poured into a bottle and held in one’s hand.”
Images from: creezy courtoy, the antique guild, candice hern
NOTE: I’m currently at work on a longer piece about the myth of tear catchers for Atlas Obscura — if this interests you, stay tuned.