People love strange historical objects, but one stands out from the typical collection of oddities—a tear catcher.
The Victorians are known for using lachrymatories or tear catchers. If there’s one thing Victorians knew how to do, it was to mourn. They had elaborate rituals they had to follow to properly show their dead loved ones how much they meant to them. Not only did they wear fancy black clothing, but they also couldn't attend certain social events during their mourning season. They had to dress and act in a way that was appropriate for someone who was mourning.
Black symbolized the darkness of their hearts and spirits during these allotted seasons. These socially-determined times would vary depending on how close one was to the deceased. Widows had it especially rough. They were required to formally grieve for two years. Children mourned for about a year, and grandparents six months, and so on.
They took grieving very seriously, and it all started with Queen Victoria’s loss of her husband, Prince Albert. His death rocked the queen’s foundation, and she mourned him for the rest of her life. Her devotion to mourning him caused a ripple effect amongst all her subjects. To not properly mourn, was to not be a proper Victorian.
They created beautiful objects for their grief. You may have seen some of the striking sculptures and jewelry made from a loved one’s hair after they’d passed. And they, of course, collected their tears in small glass tear catchers.
These beautiful and often ornate lachrymatories would hold your grieving tears, and when the tears had fully evaporated, your morning period was over. It all makes for a great story, which I wrote about in Fabled Episode 19: Selkies. And it makes sense that Victorians would use such a thing—with all their superstition surrounding death and all. But is there any truth to it?
It turns out, not really. According to Atlas Obscura, what people are mistaking for tear catchers are actually Victorian perfume bottles.
Historically We Know...
A lachrymatory, or tear catcher as it’s typically called, dates back to the Romans and Greeks who kept these in the tombs of their dead. They, too, were supposedly used to catch the tears of mourners. Such a romantic thought, isn’t it? To be buried with the tears of those you loved. Too bad that’s not what they were, after all. They were actually vessels for a type of ointment used during the burial process.
Even the Bible mentions ideas of collecting tears. Psalm 56:8 says:
You keep track of all my sorrows.
So, it’s not really a surprise that people throughout history have had this romantic idea of collecting tears.
Other stories of tear catchers:
According to Cleopatra’s Boudoir, the reports that Egyptians used them is a myth, as well. The bottles collected in their tombs are also from perfumes.
Some believe women during the Civil War collected their tears to show their husbands how much they missed them when they returned.
Even though stories of tear catchers have been used throughout history, there are no records of people actually using them, outside of the Biblical reference.
The bottles that are circulated today likely once contained salts, oils, ointments, and perfumes. Women would throw away the vessels these items came in after transferring them to more ornate bottles they kept on their vanities.
It was somewhat of a bummer to learn that lachrymatories were never actually used because the idea of them seemed so lovely. Even despite the myth of them, there's a large market of people looking to buy them. Antique dealers sell them quite often, also marketing them as tear catchers, despite knowing the truth. I wonder if there’s a market for true lachrymatories, though. If someone began making and selling them now, are we a generation who would actually use them?
I doubt it, but it’s a nice thought. I suppose it’s not the lachrymatories that make for a good story, anyway. It’s the tears behind them—the story of how those tears came to be. It’s the people, the love, and the loss that evokes the emotion and keeps this myth circulating. Sometimes it’s not the truth that inspires us. It’s the legend.
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