Catching Feelings: The Myth of Victorian-Era Tear Catchers | Haute Macabre

Catching Feelings: The Myth of Victorian-Era Tear Catchers

Tear Catchers, or Throwaway Perfume Bottles

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?

Tear Catchers, or Throwaway Perfume Bottles

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.

Tear Catchers, or Throwaway Perfume Bottles

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.

Tear Catchers, or Throwaway Perfume 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.

4 Comment

  1. In Egyptian times these were used as tear catchers and were often buried with the deceased. Victorians were know for creating the Egyptian Revival Era. That is where this stems from. Go further back, and remember the Victorians were very sentimental in their mourning processes. Just because it isn’t in a book doesn’t discount the many stories from Victorian era women that used them for such purposes.

    1. Hi Julia! The Egyptians actually never used tear catchers either… The artifacts found buried with Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were called “lacrimarium” but that was just a turn of phrase; they were vials for perfumes and oils. The Victorians were incredibly sentimental in their mourning process, but they were also fairly exacting. Most of the myths associated with “tear catchers” use them to measure the length of the mourning period, which contradicts the mourning rules actually set in place by Victoria. There’s a lot of misinformation about these online which is why I’m working with a perfume expert and a Victorian history expert on my longer article — we’ll link it here when it’s completed! In the meanwhile there is a lot more info at the two places I linked in the article, Victorian Gothic and Cleopatra’s Boudoir. Thanks for reading!

    1. I collect mourning items and I make my own as my best friend of well over a decade died suddenly Thanksgiving morning of last year. I was fascinated with the idea of mourning as a child. I remember my father taking me to old graveyards when I was five, likely due to my Hungarian grandmother who took me to see distant relatives and would get upset if I ever walked over the graves. Back when I was a teenager mourning, at least the intricate and traditional mourning I always found comforting had been reduced to a moribund eccentricity in the funeral community. I have noticed a resurgence in collecting Victorian era mourning items, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time now and my best friend and I had an understanding that whichever one of us went first would wear a necklace containing the cremains of the other so I decided to search for a suitable and durable pendant that would hold his cremains, a lot of the pendants I found required me to send the remains out to the person who would create jewelry using the ashes but since Mark had lived with AIDS since the mid eighties, Hollywood Forever where he wanted to be interred had very specific rules that only they could handle the cremains, and I bought an hourglass pendant where the ashes go into the shatter proof glass compartments of the hourglass. The other reason I chose it was because it reminded me of Mark who knew and appreciated things most of us take for granted. He’d been told multiple times by doctors to get his affairs in order yet he always managed to somehow beat the odds. It gutted me to my very core to lose him, it was a major fear I had and it had finally happened and I’m still reeling from his death for reasons that I won’t mention other than to say I’d never wish what happened to me on anyone. At any rate while I may have purchased a lot of mourning items from stores like Necromance, and Memento Mori that aren’t far from where I live I never saw anything relating to lachrimony other than a large antique jar that could’ve been just made to look antique, I’d often see those small glass vials for sale at very inflated prices and since tears evaporate rather quickly I figured it was more of an urban legend and less of an actual practice but I do get kind of pissed when I see people selling old smelling salts containers for over two hundred dollars. Thanks for writing this, looking forward to reading the second piece on this subject.