Cry Moar
December 2, 2022 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Did a parent, teacher, or unsympathetic friend ever tell you to "save your tears"? Use of this item is probably not what they actually meant: Debunking the Myth of 19th-Century ‘Tear Catchers.’
posted by taz (10 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder what spurious legends future humans (if there are any) will invent about us.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:57 AM on December 2, 2022

[waves empty matchbox around] wait, are you telling me that this casket may not contain an actual mourner's sigh? Do you mean to say that [indicating disused lavatory] my house doesn't have an authentic Lamentationatory?
posted by phooky at 10:14 AM on December 2, 2022 [3 favorites]

It goes back a lot further than the nineteenth century. 'Put thou my tears into thy bottle' (Psalm 56: 8), and then there's Sir Thomas Browne's flight of fancy about archaeologists digging up tombs and drinking the tears of the dead:

Some find sepulchral vessels containing liquors, which time hath incrassated into jellies. For, besides these lachrymatories, notable lamps, with vessels of oils, and aromatical liquors, attended noble ossuaries; and some yet retaining a vinosity and spirit in them, which, if any have tasted, they have far exceeded the palates of antiquity.

(Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, 1658)
posted by verstegan at 10:20 AM on December 2, 2022 [8 favorites]

The article does address earlier finds a bit: "Small glass bottles were often found in Greek and Roman tombs, and 'early scholars romantically dubbed [them] lachrymatories or tear bottles,' writes Grace Elizabeth Arnone Hummel, who runs the perfume website Cleopatra’s Boudoir. Those glass bottles held perfume and unguents, not tears, Hummel explains. “Scientists have performed chemical tests on these flasks and they disproved the romantic theory.”
posted by taz at 10:46 AM on December 2, 2022

Because I am a insufferable pedant and hate it when articles say “scientists have proved X” without providing any gorram citations from actual scientists, here is a hastily-sourced citation, available through JSTOR:

The Chronology and Function of Ceramic Unguentaria
Virginia R. Anderson-Stojanović
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 91, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 105-122
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:33 PM on December 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

I mostly know about this from Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero doing some excellent screen chewing in 'Quo Vadis' (1951).
posted by ovvl at 4:37 PM on December 2, 2022

How odd. I have a piece of glassware my grandparents called a tear catcher, probably "good story" rather than "people we knew did this" — but nothing like the Victorian ones or the Greco-Roman ones. Bulbous base and a long, recurved, narrow swan-neck, with a wider lipped opening drawn into a teardrop shape. Prooobably from Saudi Arabia between the world wars. ??
posted by clew at 8:11 PM on December 2, 2022

One of these, of which the Mat museum says:
according to folklore, these bottles were used as "containers for tears," (ashkdan) meant to collect the sorrows of wives separated from their husbands
posted by clew at 8:48 PM on December 2, 2022

I googled the company cited and they are now second in tear bottle search results which must be a blow to their careful mythology! The bottles themselves while wildly overpriced are absolutely charming, and I think I'd rather get a tear bottle than a vial of blood as is often portrayed romantically in pop culture.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:07 PM on December 2, 2022

The Met dominates my search results, but I did find a glassware-collector who thinks it’s a kind of rosewater sprinkler.

Related to perfume vials, although not quite as easy to explain as glassware made to export scent from the rare places scent can be manufactured in quantity.
posted by clew at 1:14 PM on December 3, 2022

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