In this guide I will discuss the origins of the fanciful tear bottle, its legends and its scientific outcomes.Many people have used the term "tear bottle" to market simple scent, cosmetic or unguent bottles.Also goes by names such as tear bottle, tear catcher, lapel bottle, tear vial, boot bottle, unguentaria, bosom bottle, or unguentarium. There are also several less common spellings for lachrymatory, including lacrymatory.
The Old Testament of the Bible (KJV) references collecting tears in a bottle in Psalm 56:8 when David prays to God, "Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy Book?" The reference predates the birth of Christ by over 1000 years, and does not refer to burials.
And another reference, "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). Some scholars believe she poured her tear bottle's contents onto his feet. It would be artistic license to say that she washed his feet with her tears, as they fell from her eyes, or maybe a poetic way of saying she was crying whilst she washed his feet with unguents.
Pliny the Elder, writing later in the first century, stated that ointments kept best in alabaster boxes.
Some people state that tear bottles were prevalent in ancient Egyptian history, however, I have never read anything that refers to any so called tear bottles. The Egyptians were very fond of cosmetics and perfumes, the bottles found in their tombs and in the ruined cities would have been for just that.
So-called "Tear" bottles were fairly common in Roman times, around the time of Christ, when its said that mourners filled small glass bottles or cups with tears and placed them in burial tombs as symbols of respect. Sometimes women were even paid to cry into these vessels, as they walked along the mourning procession. Those crying the loudest and producing the most tears received the most compensation, or so the legend goes. The more anguish and tears produced, the more important and valued the deceased person was perceived to be. These were not actually for "tears", they were for perfumed unguents!
It is also said that "tear" bottles reappeared during the Victorian era, when those mourning the loss of loved ones would collect their tears in bottles with special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate. Apparently, when the tears had evaporated, the mourning period would end. In some Civil War stories, women were said to have cried into tear bottles and saved them until their husbands returned from battle. Their collected tears would show the men how much they were adored and missed.
In reality these flasks were for scented vinegars,smelling salts, perfumes and toilet waters to scent handkerchiefs, many of the little bottles were suspended from chatelaines which hung at the waist. A myth perpetuated on the internet claims that when the tears in the bottle evaporated, the mourning period would be over. This is a completely false statement. The Victorians followed what Queen Victoria dictated in life and wanted to imitate her and her royal court. Her mourning guidelines were very strict. As for periods of mourning, we are told that a widow's mourning should last eighteen months, although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve.
More info on Victorian Mourning customs, visit www.Victoriana.com.
Other types of bottles that are mistaken for "tear" bottles are the throwaway bottles, these long skinny glass bottles often had gilded decorations, these bottles were 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.
Since these bottles were commonly found in tombs, early scholars romantically dubbed these bottles lachrymatories or tear bottles. This misnomer has aided the seller of antique bottles throughout the years who knew the effect of playing with someone's sentiments might help him or her sell a bottle more easily.
Scientists have performed chemical tests on these flasks and they disproved the romantic theory, revealing traces of oils and essences, instead of tears. These simple pottery or glass flasks were meant to hold cheap essential oils, the more expensive oils deserved more elaborate bottles. However, the mystery and allure of having a bottle to collect tears of the bereaved must sound appealing in some way as these items are being marketed today and people are buying them .
- Perfume and Scent Bottle Collecting by Jean Sloan
- Millers Perfume Bottles by Madeleine Marsh
- Pictures courtesy of www.BathAntiquesOnline.com