Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle

Transparent Fiction - The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle This weeping widow uses a handkerchief, not a tear bottle, 1897

Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle This weeping widow uses a handkerchief, not a tear bottle, 1897

It is an affecting picture: sobbing black-clad Victorian mourners holding little glass vials to their eyes to catch their streaming tears. The vials could be sealed and left at the gravesite or taken home as a reminder of loss and its attendant grief.  By the time  the trapped tears evaporated, perhaps the bereaved one’s eyes would be dry, symbolizing an end to mourning and the renewal of hope.

This touching image has spawned the legend of the Victorian tear bottle, which has spread virulently through books and the internet, usually by people who seem to be making it up as they go along. One book describes—without citing sources—how groups of mourners would mingle their tears in one bottle and how the wives left behind during the Civil War collected their tears to show to their loved ones as proof that they had been missed.

Today you can purchase pretty objects described as “tear bottles,” or “tear catchers,” both new and antique, and the bottles have become emblematic of the quaint and macabre mourning practices of the Victorians. Now I like an attractive mourning tradition as well as the next ghoul, but, like the myth of standing corpses held up by posing stands for their post-mortem portraits, this transparent fiction really needs to be smashed to bits.

Recently there have been some excellent articles disputing the use of tear bottles and calling them what they are: perfume flasks. I was about to publish this article when this excellent piece by Sonya Vatomsky was posted. There is also this slightly older post, examining the tear bottle legend, so my post may seem redundant.  However, I am all about primary sources, and I have looked at the subject using textual references, which may seem tedious if you are a believer in the myth.  Be warned that this post will be Relentlessly Informative. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

When searching the literature for references to “tear bottles,” “tear catchers” or variant spellings of “lachrymatories,” there are basically three types of references: the sacred, the archaeological, and the secular, which almost always has a satirical or comedic context. There are also a few outliers such as reports of customs from exotic lands, and, of course, modern references to the alleged Victorian “tradition.”

Let’s start with the legend’s origins. Persons discussing the tradition of tear bottles often cite Psalm 56: 8: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” Small glass and clay bottles have been found in copious quantities in ancient graves. Nineteenth-century archaeologists and scholars described mourners crying into the bottles, which were then left at the grave. These artifacts were dubbed “lacrymatories” although, due to my lack of ancient languages, I haven’t found ancient texts confirming that there really was such a word or custom in Egypt, Cypress, Phoenicia, or Greece. However, even if this was just a sentimental fiction, the notion was well-known to the Victorian reading public.

I have a few decades of experience reading Victorian popular journals, newspapers, and fiction. Mourning fads and fashions are well-covered in all of these media. If tear bottles were deployed by mourners, we would expect to see them mentioned or advertised. Let me share a few statistics. Recently I examined several digital newspaper databases to see if I could find contemporary mentions of “tear bottles” or “tear catchers” used in Victorian mourning. What I found was this:

In the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” database, [1839-1922] there were 329 entries, almost all references to the lachrymatories found in ancient graves. In addition to duplicate references to the same newspaper articles, an estimated 10% of the total were optical scan errors, for example, misreading phrases like “four bottles” or “team catcher.”  Under the phrase “tear catcher,” there were 4 entries, none of which related to mourning.

In Newspaperarchive.com, [1786-2014] there were 1,545 matches for “tear bottle” and 281 matches for “tear catcher.” The references were largely religious and archaeological.

In newspapers.com, [1850-2015] there were 1,800 matches for “tear bottle” and 234 matches for “tear catcher.” These were also primarily references to ancient tear bottles. Some entries from the 1970s onward referenced the “tradition,” but did not give any primary Victorian sources. An article from 2015 advertised new tear bottles being sold at a gift shop, along with “artisan gourds, P. Buckley Moss, and fashion accessories.”

At Genealogybank.com, [1833-1983] we find 244 matches for “tear bottle,” which are, again, nearly all about ancient bottles and 29 references to “tear catchers,” most of which were mis-reads in articles about baseball.

In Google Books, [1677-1974] there are 205 entries for “tear bottle,” most of which refer to the bottles of antiquity. There are only 3 entries for “tear catcher” and none for “tear catchers.”

I’ve gone into this level of detail because I want to emphasize that while the 19th and early 20th century press was full of information on mourning practices, I can find absolutely no period “tear bottle” key-word entries which refer to Victorian mourners bottling their tears. 

Phoenician “tear bottle” https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/12495

While the ancient artifacts sometimes called “tear bottles” certainly existed, I do not know if modern archaeologists would agree that they were used for tears. They might be ampullae or unguentaria. In the last few years, the use of investigative techniques unavailable to the archaeologists of the nineteenth century has confirmed that these so-called “tear bottles” contained oily substances, perhaps fragrant ointments used as libations or to anoint the dead. Oddly enough, this theory was known well before modern chemical analyses, but so ingrained was the idea that these ancient bottles were “tear catchers,” that a bizarre and misogynistic theory had to be invented to explain away the actual contents, as can be seen in this article from 1913:

ROUGE POTS OF EGYPT

“Tear Bottles” Used to Display Grief Were Powder Puffs.

Philadelphia. The “tear bottles” which women of the Orient carried centuries ago reveal the hypocrisy of the women. Several of these bottles are included in a collection of glassware which has been bought for $13,000 for the University of Pennsylvania museum. In ancient prints and histories the women of fashion of 1000 B.C. are represented as carrying the “tear bottle” in which to give vent to their grief on public occasion. It now develops that when the woman raised one of the bottles to her eyes she was dabbing powder over a red spot on her cheek.

Examination of the “tear bottles” in the museum collection disclosed traces of rouge, powder paint and cold cream still sticking to the bottom of the glass. In the collection are many cream pots and oil jars for the toilet table wrought in wonderful designs and colors, which have been more beautiful after lying for many centuries in tombs of Egyptian cities where they were found.

Daily Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock AK] 13 July 1913: p. 29

Talk about making it up as you go along….It takes a certain sort of insufferable arrogance to misunderstand an artifact and blame long-dead women for its alleged misuse.

In yet another extravagant display of making it up as you go along, we find this little-known episode of Egyptian history:

In 1952 the Cleveland Plain Dealer added this text to an illustration of a woman with an Egyptian flask. “On a wedding night, 1,900 years ago, a young bride like this cried her happiness into a tear-bottle—and then put the stopper in for later memories.”

Throughout the 19th century, there were spates of (probably) apocryphal stories from exotic locations about the use of tear bottles.

Take this unsubstantiated story, which has nothing to do with mourning:

CHINESE TEAR-BOTTLE.

It is a custom among the Chinese to have a tear-bottle. When two ladies or females of the lower rank quarrel, they go before a magistrate. A tear-bottle is given to the individual who says she is aggrieved, and if she can fill it with tears, the magistrate says, “I perceive you have been harshly treated. I shall award a great punishment to the one by whom you have been oppressed.” If she can only half fill it, the punishment is reduced to one half, but if she cannot shed one tear, there is no punishment at all.” Newark [NJ] Daily Advocate 5 August 1850: p. 2

Iran “tear bottle” (perhaps a perfume sprinkler) iran tear bottle https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/349980

This next story is the closest match I’ve ever found for the notion of mourners collecting tears, but it, too, is set in a distant country.

They still bottle tears in Persia. As the mourners at a funeral sit around weeping wads of cotton are passed with which the cheeks are mopped, the tears are then squeezed into a bottle and used as a charm and to revive dying persons. The practice was once universal, as every old tomb has a tear bottle. Otago Daily Times 24 November 1884: p. 4

I consulted two associates with backgrounds in Middle Eastern literature and culture and this is what I was told:

Both pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and Persian poetry have a long tradition of talking about tears.  A lot of crying tears of blood (crying so hard the eyes bleed) or crying enough to wash off a body in preparation for burial. There is a Farsi word for tear-bottle: Ashk-daan, but these objects seemed to be, like lacrymatories, historical objects or archaeological finds in graves, and not in current or 19th-century use.

The Persian tear bottle seems to be a poetic conceit conflated with grave finds. The Victorian public’s interest in Sir Richard Burton’s books and Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám may have suggested the idea of this Persian custom.

Such stories suggested extravagant displays of grief like those from the professional mourners of Egypt, Italy, and Ireland, none of whom reported bottling tears.

Ancient tear bottles pop up in a variety of odd places. For example, in an 1833 discussion of politics:

*“…we have nothing in the shape of consolation—not even a tear-bottle to send them.” (after mentioning “lachrymal vases which we received from the ruins of Thebes a few years since.”)

*A Temperance sermon called “How the Rum Bottle Fills the Tear Bottle,” [presumably God’s] was announced in  the New York Tribune 4 April 1884: p. 8

*A fairy character in a 1913 story called “HER BABY’S SMILE,” by Roy Rutherford Bailey tells about a tear in a bottle, which is revealed in the soppiest manner possible as “a tear of pure delight. It was the happy tear of a young mother over her baby’s first smile.” Boston [MA] Herald 30 December 1913: p. 11

*This quote, cited at Lachrymatory.com, seems like it might offer some positive proof of the tear bottle custom.

One subtle, but accurate reference is found in The Living Age, a literary journal, in 1898. In the story, A Fateful Dinner Party, by H. Meyer Henne, the character Major Blythe discusses consoling a friend with Mrs. Samuels, “Lady Sloane won’t need to go shares with the tear bottle.”

However, looking at the tone of the entire story (which is a late silver-fork comedy of manners), and given the slangy context, (the exchange about Lady Sloane begins with “you bet your bottom dollar that Carol will console herself.”) this seems more likely to be a sarcastic reference to the easily alleviated grief of the mourning friend rather than a reference to an actual custom.

“The tear bottle” is often the equivalent of “get out your handkerchiefs!” and evokes in a jocular way fake sorrow or sympathy and exaggerated grief. It is important to recognize the unspoken subtext, the nuances, and the conventions of nineteenth-century writing rather than just seeking a keyword match.

This next item initially seemed promising, but no—the lady practicing with her tear bottle was from ancient Pompeii….

Before the days of La Grippe, when the ladies of Pompeii were the belles of the day, posed as the professional beauties, and, for all we know, had their photographs taken and got a percentage on them, well-bred people didn’t cry in handkerchiefs. They dropped their tears slowly and graceful into vials of cut glass that had gold stoppers set about with precious stones. There can be no doubt that the woman with thoughts upon a graceful pose practiced with her tear-bottle before her mirror, and, can there be anything more touching than when one’s best young man was off to the wars, sending him by registered letter a little note saying, “You have all my heart and these are the tears I have wept for you since your absence!” The tear-bottle could be enclosed as practical proof, and the maiden fair would write on the outside of the envelope in large letters: “Glass—please do not stamp so hard.” Those, indeed, were the days of romance! Undoubtedly some very fetching young women, who appreciated the impression made by a bottle of tears, but didn’t like getting a red nose, had their slaves do the weeping for them, and physical cultured themselves by administering to the slaves a good sound whipping that they might have something to weep for…

Nowadays in place of the bottle [emphasis mine] we have handkerchiefs… [goes on to discuss handkerchiefs at length.] St Louis [MO] Republic 11 January 1890: p. 9

I wonder if the bit about sending the bottle of tears to a soldier boyfriend was the inspiration for the idea that Civil War wives and sweethearts made a practice of this.

Next I got my hopes up with the promising headline, “Revival of the Tear Bottle.” But, alas! “Tear bottle,” only referred to the shape of the ancient bottles.

Revival of the Tear Bottle.

Among quaint old shapes in porcelain that are being revived are the classic “tear bottles,” a narrow-necked, full-bodied shape, round at the bottom, recalling the primitive days of the human race when such luxuries as tables were unknown and the bottle, the chief domestic utensil, was stuck in the stand to keep it upright. The tear bottle is often found in Roman and old Greek tombs. In it were supposed to be stored the tears shed for the departed ones. Quaint bottles of porcelain in this shape are mounted in ornamental frames of wrought iron.…All varieties of exquisite shapes in porcelain and Bacarat glass are mounted in wrought iron frames. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 16 July 1891: p. 6

Then there was an article headed “Bottled Tears,” which began by describing a craze for painting household accessories. It goes on:

But the very latest, up to the hour of going to press is painted “tear bottles.” For centuries there has been absolutely nothing to catch tears in, when a girl desired to sit down and have a good cry. How on earth this has come to be overlooked is not simply astonishing; it is astounding. Hitherto expensive handkerchiefs have been drenched, and their value nearly destroyed, on account of the sorrowing person being obliged to run to the door every few minutes and wring them out. If the person happened to be a copious weeper and her sadness of a great and overshadowing nature, like the loss of a thirteen ounce poodle, not only would the handkerchief be ruined, but all evidence of the feelings of the afflicted one over the calamity would be obliterated—wrung out in the gutter and carried away into the sewers. It is proposed now to retain these blessed mementoes in bottles, for future reference, and it is certainly a beautiful sentiment. Elegantly painted bottles, standing in rows on painted shelves provided expressly for them, will hereafter form a principal feature in a lady’s boudoir—showing the rainfall for the year throughout a large part of the Northwest. The decanters will be labeled appropriately, “On the death of poor Carlo,” “On seeing the hateful Maliflores in the loveliest of bonnets,” etc. These tender tokens of past sorrows will be useful as well as sentimental, and in case the sincerity of the lady’s grief is ever called in question, on the occasion of the death of her poodle or her husband, she can set out the bottle containing the tears shed at the time, and silence the venomous tongue of slander. Bottled tears, not for export, but for home use, will also have a commercial value, and can be placed in evidence in a court of justice, on an action for breach of promise. A painted three-gallon jug of tears would assuredly go far with a jury in determining the amount of damages to be awarded…Peck’s Sun.

Alabama Beacon [Greensboro AL] 16 February 1883: p. 3

Well, while the headline certainly sounds authoritative, it is patently obvious from this and from the rest of the piece that the passage is meant as satire.  The source also gives it away.  Peck’s Sun was run by well-known humorist George W. Peck, and was sometimes called “the funniest paper in America.”

Surely a sermon could provide convincing proof of the tradition? Yet this widely syndicated homily called “A Vision of Heaven” or “God’s Tear Bottle,” by The Rev. Thomas De Witt Talmage, one of the most popular American preachers of the 19th century, does just the opposite.

Talmage wrote:

“…on the steps of the altar was something like the lachrymal or tear bottle as I had seen it in the earthly museums, [emphasis mine.] the lachrymals or tear-bottles into which the orientals used to weep their griefs and set them away as sacred. But this lachrymal, or tear-bottle, instead of earthenware as those the orientals used, was lustrous and fiery with many splendors, and it was towering and of great capacity… And I said to my attending angel; “What is that great lachrymal, or tear-bottle, standing on the steps of the altar?” and the angel said: “Why, do you not know? That is the bottle to which David, the psalmist, referred in his fifty-sixth psalm when he said: “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.’ It is full of tears from earth, tears of repentance, tears of bereavement, tears of joy, tears of many centuries.” Sermons, Thomas De Witt Talmage 1872: p. 365-372

This, I think is a vital piece of evidence in disproving the tear bottle as an actual Victorian tradition: it is always mentioned in the context of the past.

Not convinced? Here’s another:

I must now direct your attention to a remarkable classical curiosity, namely the “Tear Bottle.” No one quite knows what these bottles were, neither is the origin known of the strange title to an Italian wine called Lachrymae Christi. This name has but correspondential value, but the tear-bottles have reference to some strange ceremonies long ago lost and forgotten. [emphasis mine.] Nevertheless, if any one will reflect what sort of tears are shed, when the soul is in deep grief and contrition, it will be concluded, I think, that they are a physical effect caused by the attrition and solution of that soul, altogether different from the usual eye secretion. The Journal of the Alchemical Society, London, November 1913: pp. 26-7

Again, here we see reference to an ancient, long-forgotten custom and not a mourning curiosity of a decade or two before.

In a sermonette against self-pity from 1941, the author speaks of ancient tear bottles without any mention of a later tradition:

A tear bottle is a little container whose mouth is shaped just like an eye and which, when put to the eye, fits very snugly. It is made, you see, so that one may catch his tears. No, tear bottles are not made any longer, not really, but in far off Egypt, many, many years ago, thousands of them were made. (They were possibly also made in ancient Palestine, for we find the Psalmist praying, “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.”) The Pantagraph [Bloomington IL] 23 November 1941: p. 17

I’ll offer one last example against the idea of Victorian tear bottle usage. This is from a gossip column, but there is no reason to think that the description from the letter is inaccurate:

The columnist writes that the widowed actress Mary Moore, on tour in America, shared a letter from her nanny, who was caring for her two children back in England.

[The letter] recounted the progress of the babies. The elder of the two is inclined to cry copiously. It seems as if his little heart is ever overcharged with sorrows beyond his very few years. He is not a fretful crier, but a mournful little chap, generally. The nurse, a wise, motherly woman, determined to get him out of this habit. So she pretended to read in the Times newspaper that there had been invented “a tear-catcher for baby boys.” This useful little invention, she declared she should purchase, as mamma often said that boys’ tears were very precious after they had turned 4 years of age; “and, of course,” added the adroit nurse, “if they are so precious, why, mamma can sell them, if saved in the tear-catcher, and on her return sell them for a deal of money, thus preventing her having to leave us and go away off to America to work for us all.” For a day or two the manly heart of the sorrowful little boy was so stirred that he did not cry as he usually did. But finally he resumed his weeping. Meantime nurse had raked up an old pair of seaside smoked glass goggles, removed the glasses, and, with the aid of wire, filled up the holes with tiny china ink wells, completing the whole with an elastic head band. A birthday came. So! There was the usual weeping. Nurse produced the tear-catcher as her birthday gift. At once the tears were dried ere the lad had worn them two minutes. On this the baby toddler realized, in a dim way, that his brother was in some sort of disgrace, and he began screaming lustily. Off came the glasses, and, with tragic intensity, the youngster lisped out: “Put ‘em on him; he a cryin’, nurse; me won’t cry any more.” At the time of writing the tears saved by “the catcher” seemed very few indeed, for selling purposes, the nurse explained…

Annie Wakeman.

Boston [MA] Herald 5 January 1890: p. 21

Note that this diverting anecdote came from a recently bereaved household.  Mary Moore’s husband, James Albery, died in 1889. If there had been such a thing as tear bottles, the nurse would not have had to invent her bizarre tear-catching specs, but could have popped down to the shops to purchase one. And if tear bottles had truly been an article in use in Victorian England, why would the custom not have been mentioned in this very appropriate context?

A final point: It is possible that the tear-bottle myth arose from the great many references in Victorian deathbed scenes and poetry to the “last tear” of the dying. This is a phenomenon not unknown to those who work with the dying. It is called lacrima mortis.

While there are copious references to “the last tear” there are far fewer references to actually catching that tear. These references are found mainly in a religious context and the tear is caught, not in a bottle, but on a bit of cloth or a handkerchief.

Here is a well-known example, from St. Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897), who speaks of her Superior, Mother Genevieve: “The Sisters hastened to claim something belonging to our beloved Mother, and you know what precious relic is mine. During her agony I had noticed a tear glistening like a beautiful diamond. That tear, the last she shed on this earth, did not fall, I still saw it shining when her body was exposed in the choir. When evening came, I made bold to approach unseen, with a little piece of linen, and I now have the happiness of possessing the last tear of a Saint.”

If not tear bottles, what are those pretty antique glass bottles which are so often advertised for sale? Sonya Vatomsky of Haute Macabre, who also wrote the Atlas Obscura article at the beginning of this post, suggests very plausibly that they are disposable perfume bottles called “throwaways.”

Some vinaigrettes or salts bottles sometimes mistaken for “tear bottles.”

Illustrations in catalogs show very similar bottles sold as “vinaigrettes” or “salt bottles.” The vinaigrette was a decorative bottle containing smelling salts.

THE FASHIONABLE VINAIGRETTE

The vinaigrette most in demand just now is the one which is most antique in appearance. The dull gold or “Indian finish” is almost exclusively used for the top….The bottles are much the shape of the famous “tear bottles,” and vary through every cut of the glassmakers’ art. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 January 1900: p. 36

Why am I bothering to go on at such length about a relatively minor mortuary legend? Because it is bad history. Fake news, if you like. And people are profiting from the fakelore. I suppose you could make a case that fakelore is harmless (although it would be difficult to tell that to the “Slenderman” victims), but I do not think it harmless to have an actual historical artifact turned into something it patently is not and never was.  This was highlighted in a recent article about those “vampire killing kits,” which asked if it made any difference if they were real or not. The notion isn’t “whimsical” or “letting people make up their own minds.” It is fraud. And yes, bad history and fake artifacts do matter.

But can I prove a negative? I cannot prove that tear bottles never existed. Yet the silence in popular sources, which otherwise dwelt at length on every gradation of crape and black borders, is damning. While I often study the ephemeral customs that had their fifteen minutes of fame and then vanished without necessarily leaving physical artifacts behind, it would be without precedent not to find some documentation. A custom claimed to be so pervasive must surely have left behind some traces in the written record.

I’ve collected as many primary references as I could, hoping to show conclusively that there is no evidence in the popular record of tear bottles being used in Victorian mourning. Perhaps someone has another set of primary sources that would prove me wrong.

I regret that I must specify primary sources. When I briefly sketched out these arguments for a group of mourning history/artifact enthusiasts, one of them told me about the modern book that I mentioned earlier that cited no sources for the tear-bottle fantasy, earnestly assuring me that I’d find the proof I was looking for there. Well, no….

While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, in this case the evidence suggests that it is time to put the stopper into the tear-bottle myth. I’m sorry it all has to end without tears.

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.