Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tear Bottles: Sentimental Gift or Genius Marketing Ploy?

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! 

Later Uses: 

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

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. 

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 perfume bottles were made more for the common folk than the wealthy.

I had reported previously that the bottles were only made in Germany and Bohemia but upon further research, I have found that many of the gilded examples actually originated in Turkey.

These flacons were manufactured in glass houses in Turkey at Beykoz. Selim III (18th century) sent Dervish Mehmet Dede to Venice to learn the art of glass-making and on his return a glass workshop was established at Beykoz. Although the manufacture of glass had existed since the early Ottoman period, the production was limited to utilitarian bottles and vases or stained-glass panels used in architecture. Art glass was imported from Venice during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and later from Bohemia. Beykoz is a small village near the Black Sea on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. It is one of the oldest communities in Istanbul and has been a center of Islamic glass manufacturing since establishment of a factory in the late eighteenth century, producing a considerable amount of glass and crystal ware. The goblets, bowls,  stemmed bowls, tulip and rose-water flasks, bottles and dishes in transparent or opaque glass - some decorated and others gilded glassware - from Mehmet Dede's workshop are called “Beykoz isi”, or Beykoz work.

Bulgarian historical review, 1975:
"The vial (muskal) is a glass container with a capacity of 4.81 grammes of attar of roses. It is an Arab measure and its value was equal to 24 karats of gold. The vials had different forms and decorations. To prevent them from breaking, they were laid in a wooden container."

These were sold at spas, fairs and shops and not made for refill, hence the name throwaway. The earliest mention I have found for them is in an 1804 newspaper, The Times (London).

Another early mention is from an 1830 New York Evening Post newspaper, "Otto of Roses, in small gilt bottles, warranted pure, put up in boxes of one dozen each."

Edgefield Advertiser, 1856:
"This oil is brought to Constantinople in hermetically sealed copper vessels, varying in size from those capable of holding an ounce to those which hold seven pounds, so that, at the regular market price, ($6 an ounce), one of these copper cases may be worth $50. The oil is worth six times its  weight in silver. The ordinary amount of oil produced in Hassanlik (in Bulgaria) is a little less than 3,000 pounds. At Constantinople the oil is put up in gilt bottles, manufactured expressly for the purpose in Bohemia."

Most bottles measure 7” to 8” long and have a ground stopper with a round, flat top. Some were made about half that size as well. These bottles were usually made of clear glass, but can also be found in blue, amber, green, opaque 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, lines, crosshatching, and flat planes cut into the sides. The bottles were often hand decorated with bright enamels or rich gilding.

These are not tear bottles. They were made to hold perfume oils.

American journal of pharmacy, 1868:
"Attar of rose is exported in large quantities in what are called cuncumas that is to say flat flasks of tinned copper having a short and narrow neck. These vary in capacity from 1 to 10 pounds they are sewed up in white cloth either at Kizanlik or when necessary at Constantinople sealed and provided with the Custom House ticket. Among the bottles must be mentioned the long angular little vials usually of minute capacity. These cut and gilded glass bottles in which attar is so often imported are said to be of German manufacture, which travellers bring home as presents after a journey in the East. They hold perhaps about fifteen drops of oil are tied over with bladder and red silk and what invests them with most value are sold in the bazaar to the unwitting traveler at a high price. They often contain simply a few drops of geranium oil, the bladder being smeared with a touch of attar."

Good Housekeeping, 1880:
"The otto, which many persons like to have lie amongst their clothing in small vials, should not be purchased except from dealers of well- known character. It is sometimes amusing to note how people, otherwise shrewd, will allow some Armenian in a red fez to sell them an article purporting to be genuine " Turkish Otto of Rose," and which, at the best, is doubtful. The long narrow cut and gilt bottles said to contain otto usually contain Turkish oil of rose geranium with perhaps a touch of otto just under the cap and are dear at any price asked by vendors of no responsibility. Even among large dealers in perfumes oils and extracts it takes a long experience to buy understandingly otto of rose musk or vanilla some one or two dealers in the larger cities making a of one of these articles and employing their own expert grade them."

New Remedies: An Illustrated Monthly Trade Journal of Material, Vol 9, 1880:
"Original Packages of Otto of Rose. Otto of rose is now generally imported in kunkumas, which are flattened round tin bottles sewed up in thick white woolen cloth, holding 1 to 10 lbs, and bearing a calico label inscribed in Turkish characters. The label should indicate the tare of the bottle in Turkish weights, the rough rule for calculating which is to take 10 drachms as equal to 1 oz English. The small, gilt, white glass bottles which are commonly the only original bottles known to retail druggists, are imported from Germany into Constantinople, and are there filled by the merchants. These also should bear a calico label indicating the tare in Turkish weights. The epithets "Virgin" and "Optiss" are of English origin they are quite unknown in Turkey, and seem to have no equivalents there. They are probably applied arbitrarily according to the vendor's belief in the purity of his samples. All gilt bottles of otto may be treated alike."

The Facts:

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 .

Further reading:

  • Perfume and Scent Bottle Collecting by Jean Sloan 
  • Millers Perfume Bottles by Madeleine Marsh 
  • Pictures courtesy of 


Happ & Stahn's was a brand created in 2010 for the Victorian Era Fragrance Collection expressly for Anthropologie in association with Interparfums. The fragrance line features Eau de Parfum housed in gold foil-embellished "tear catcher" styled bottles to enhance the air of Victorian-era romance. These bottles and their packaging were designed by Laura Suzanne Foote. These beautiful bottles won the 2011 award for HBA Best Packaging Design.

Fragrances include: 1842 Rosa Alba, 1883 Fleurs de Giverny, 1922 Lily Noir, and 1933 Jasmine Riviera. The bottles are fitted with a spray and each scent has a different decoration at the end of the cap.


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This is not your average perfume blog. In each post, I present perfumes or companies as encyclopedic entries with as much facts and photos as I can add for easy reading and researching without all the extraneous fluff or puffery.

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