When delving into historical records and trying to piece together a coherent timeline of anything which there is scant evidence of, historians are often left to make intelligent assumptions based on their own knowledge and experience of a particular culture or historical time period. Anyone who has looking into the history of tear catching into small bottles, also called lachrymatory, has also been faced with this harsh reality. Fierce debate has erupted from both sides about the historical basis for any claims of tear catching at all. Some emanant historians have claimed that instead of the popular notion that grieving widows and orphans would collect their tears neatly into small bottles, “tear bottles” were instead used to store perfumes that were rare and exotic.
Ancient Greek Lachrymatory
Ancient Greek civilization gave rise to the birth of modern democracy, among other revolutionary innovations. They built a prosperous and intellectual society with many customs and practices that may seem to modern readers bizarre or strange. Lachrymatory is one of those practices that allegedly started during this period in history. However, the evidence of this is scant. What is known is that archeologists haven’t uncovered any tangible evidence of the use of tear catching bottles and vials until many centuries later during the Roman republic. We can however hypothesize from this that the Romans probably got the tradition from the ancient Greeks (just as they go so many of their practices).
By the height of the Roman republic, many traditions and practices had become established and were commonplace among all levels of Roman society, from wealthy landowners to freed slaves. This is when we start to see the introduction of tear catching as a mourning practice during burials and other ceremonies. Like all Roman tools and devices, their tear vials were practical and also decorated with their own patterns and designs. Most likely,
Gilded Age Lachrymatory
When the industrial revolution happened, the standard of living began to slowly rise for vast swathes of the population. For the first time in history, the lower classes could afford luxuries on top of their lifetime struggle to survive. Middle class Victorian homes were cluttered with stuff – pictures, ornaments, rugs, ceramics, you name it. The Victorian era was also one of ceremony and ritualistic adherence to social rules. It is hardly surprising then that the Victorians would practice tear catching for deceased relatives.
Moving forward to modern times we see the ancient art revived for contemporary commercial purposes. Many companies produce these faux tear bottles and perfume bottles for sale. While they may take many creative liberties with the designs “based” on traditional patterns, they have nonetheless proved very popular with consumers looking for unique remembrance trinkets and gifts.
The old art of lachrymatory is likely to continue as it has become firmly ensconced in the collective consciousness of consumers with mass-produced and hand-made tear bottles on the market. It remains a niche product, but with a loyal and devoted following.