The Enigmatic Lachrymatory, or Tear Bottle

23 July 2011

Lachrymatory, or Tear-Catcher Bottles

Behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping, and began to wash His feet with tears, . . . and anointed them with the ointment. [Luke 7:37-38]

Does this passage describe a sinner woman deliberately anointing Jesus’s feet with a bottle of her own tears, or was she merely crying as she applied an ointment? The historical reality of the lachrymatory, or “tear bottle” is something of a controversy. Small glass or ceramic bottles found in ancient tombs have long been supposed, by some, to have once held mourner’s tears, but are more likely to have contained oils or perfumes. During the Victorian era, it is said that widows used narrow glass bottles like the ones pictured above to carry their tears. Depending on whom you ask, the custom was either to sprinkle the contents of the bottle on the grave to signify the end of the first year or mourning, or to mourn until the tears evaporated. 

It is a beautiful gesture; enough so, that one would expect to find extensive web galleries and collectors’ literature on tear bottles at the click of a mouse, but, quite to the contrary, one finds suspiciously little information on offer. Lachrymatory.com cites a couple of period sources which demonstrate that the Victorians had some concept of a tear bottle, but the stronger of the two is a poem alluding to ancient Greece, not contemporary Britain or America. 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. 

A post at Cleopatra’s Boudoir identifies the long, narrow “tear catchers,” of the style pictured above, as mere “throwaway bottles” that were used…  

…for the attar or otto of rose or oxford lavender. These were called throwaway bottles as when the lady of the house returned from the store where she purchased her otto bottle, she would then decant the contents into her own fancy bottles on her vanity or in her chatelaine scent bottle. The majority of these rather crude bottles were made in Germany, more for the common folk than the wealthy. These were sold at spas, fairs and shops and not made for refill, hence the name throwaway. Most bottles measure 7″ to 8″ long and have a ground stopper with a round, flat top. These bottles were usually made of clear glass, but can also be found in blue, amber, green or other colors. These bottles were blown glass and the stoppers often had a long dauber that reached down near the end of the bottle, the glass was decorated with ovals, crisscrosses, spirals, crosshatching, and flat planes cut into the sides. The bottles were hand decorated with bright enamels, rich gilding.

If there was a practice of tear collecting during the Victorian period, it is certainly not very well documented. Nonetheless, the idea of it is so poetic that one cannot help but wish for it to be true—but therein lies the rub. Poetic gestures capture the imagination, but they do not often reflect the reality of lived experience.

If you want one, you can buy a beautiful, hand-blown lachrymatory right off of Amazon, but, realistically, how likely are you to think of it while bursting into tears at the funeral of a loved one? And that is if you cry at all, for loss is not always expressed through showy outpourings of emotion.  It is 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. 

 

Please see the comments section if you have thoughts, pictures, or more information about lachrymatories. 

 

Special Thanks

To Camille Serpentine for research assistance and to eBay user fallboxer for images. 

 

Further Reading

19th Century Art of Mourning – “Civil War Tear Catchers.” 

Cleopatra’s Boudoir – “Tear Bottles: Sentimental Gift of Genius Marketing Ploy?”

Lachrymatory.com – “The Victorian Era.” 

Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Glass. (1977) {contains a short entry on tear bottles}

Wikipedia: Lacrymatory, Unguentarium.

 

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2 Comments to “The Enigmatic Lachrymatory, or Tear Bottle”

  1. Your posts are always so interesting!

    Victorians were big on inventories and detailed lists. The lack of mourning bottles being mentioned, therefore, leaves me to assume they were not used at the time. (save for rare individuals here and there, perhaps).

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