Victorian “Tear Catchers”- a Frequent Myth

Every so often, this image, or similar images, make the rounds, almost always attributed to be “Victorian tear catchers.”

These “tear catchers”, were claimed to be for Victorians to catch their tears while in mourning. Some even said they were passed out at funerals, and whoever caught the most was the most affected.

So, was this really the case? What does the evidence say? Was it invented sometime in more recent history as a way to sell more antiques, or attribute even more strangeness to the Victorian era?

Of course, the Victorians had lots of quirky customs and beliefs, but tear catchers were not amongst them.

Or were they?

Let’s dive into some period sources, and see just want we can turn up for “tear catchers”.

(Image source, and an article debunking the myth)


Early Mentions

I ran to the Newspaper archive to start my quest, which is one of my favorite places to search for primary source mentions. “Tear catchers”, sorted by oldest date, did not turn up any Victorian sources about mourning at all. But it did turn up quite a few baseball articles from the 1870s and 1880s! The search did read some of these wrong, and in others it was because the line of the newspaper hyphenated “ama-tear catchers” when they were spaced between lines.

There are no mentions of glass vials to catch tears whatsoever.

Now, when we get to the 1890s/Edwardian era, there are a few mentions of “tear catchers”, but they are not the tear catchers you would think of!

This is Edwardian slang for none other than…. handkerchiefs.


Handkerchiefs

“Alba Heywood entertained a large audience on Tuesday evening … audience is at one time shaking with laughter and a moment later reaching for their tear catchers…”

The Granger, Friday January 01, 1897, Page 3.


“There was a lot of human interest that should have made the audience weep and then, just when everybody got out their tear catchers out came the cute little French fairies and spoiled it all!”

The Buffalo Times, Sunday, May 31, 1908, Page 46.


“This is what the popular woman pest does while the toilers wait:

Opens her large purse and takes out the small purse.

Opens the small purse and closes the large purse.

Pulls out two handkerchiefs, a powder rag, and a $20 bill out of the small purse; puts back face dabber and tear catchers, closes small purse, tenders the twenty to the cashier, and asks to have a few pennies with her change. Meanwhile, perhaps thirty-five people are standing in line waiting to catch the express. Then the lady, after carefully counting her change, finds that the cashier has given her a Canadian dime and makes her take it back.

Opens the small purse, puts in all the money but a nickel and a penny, closes the small purse, opens the large purse, puts the small purse in the large purse and closes it.

And then- then, with half a hundred people pushing in line behind her and scowling at her, the lady, instead of going on through the stile, remembers that she has forgotten to buy a paper, and so, asserting her rights with her elbow, she pushes the waiting crowd aside, almost tears her dress on the turn-stile, and buys a paper.

Then she tries to get back into the place she missed.

O, yes- we forgot. The express has left- and also about fifty people are left. But that doesn’t bother the lady.

From such as she, good Lord deliver us.”

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, January 15, 1911. Page 59

I really didn’t need to write *all* of that out, but I had to finish it because it reminded me of traveling with my mother. Lord love her (miss ya, mom).


Then he steered them in his dignified manner over to the ice cream stand and finally, after the evening performance, placed them all on their car for Morris and with many tears of gratitude and handshaking, they started for home and long after the car was out of sight they were fluttering their lace tear-catchers to Jack.

The Times, Friday, July 07, 1911, Page 8.

The last time we did a damp duet was at one of Mrs Kendal’s performances. Some one told us it was farce, and we didn’t bother bringing any extra tear catchers. In the very first act we ran out of linen, and it was a four act play. It took the greatest self-control to keep from using the draperies of the box, and the finish of the play found us as limp as eelgrass.

The Lima Morning Star and Republican-Gazette, Saturday, February 10, 1912, Page 8.

Now I’m in vesting in a dozen new handkerchiefs to use as tear catchers for my family in the future, and I chucked the Pollyanna and the laugh stuff out of my room.

The Day Brook, Thursday, March 02, 1916, Page 29.

Now little dears- I know you folds (though my hands been called on this), but I know your little feelings- get all hurt and the tearlets trickle down your cheeklets- so I’m telling you just where to get the airy-fairy hankies to receive the tearlets from your pretty little eyelets. You know I learned all about this from watching actresses press the top of their cheeks to soak imaginary tears- Look at these tear catchers— at King-Mummey’s, on Broadway and Central.

The Parsons Daily Sun, Saturday, December 16, 1921, Page 3

The references continue on, pretty much the same. Though sometime in the 1930s, the “tear catcher” was double slang for both handkerchiefs *and* sad movies. In fact, in nearly all references throughout, it seems to apply specifically to the use of handkerchiefs for when theatre, film, or books would make us a bit weepy.

Enter the Collectors

And then…. In 1933, We have the first actual reference to “Tear Catchers”, as in, vials to collect tears.

The Countess Marie De Meixedon, world traveler recently arrived in California from India, shown with part of her collection of Hindoo tear bottles. The countess is demonstrating how these decorative, beautiful little jugs, some made of colorful onyx and others of marble, were used by the widows of India to catch their tears.

Source: Anderson Daily Bulletin, Saturday, February 18, 1933, Page 9.

This is all the context given. But, as popular as world travel was, and bringing back artifacts from travels, it’s likely she was told this while shopping for souvenirs, or perhaps even invented the idea herself, to add extra mystery to her collections. Of course, we can talk in great deal about how the antiques trade was shady and bad business (and still is), with grave robbers selling off ancient treasures to rich tourists. There are lots of moral concerns surrounding this, of course. But the reality is that these collectors are where a lot of these “myths” and claims came from, as a way to bolster the importance of their collection through public interest stories.

It’s hard for me to verify her claims, since I only have access to western newspapers and books. Perhaps someone is versed in the history of India and can jump in on whether this was actual, or if it’s a load of malarky.

Regardless, this mention is worlds away from the idea that it was for “Victorian widows to catch their tears”, and the bottles shown above are vastly different than the decorated glass vials that people like to claim are “tear catchers” today.


WWII Had Its Own Version

Another “Tear Catcher” pops up in wartime with Peggy Dunn having invented this ridiculous contraption. This one was so popular that it appeared in countless magazines across the country. This particular one was from…

Grief, it appears, can be invested with modern conveniences. Peggy Dunn, New Orleans resident, demonstrates the above by donning a pair of home-made “tear catchers” when she bids her soldier sweetheart goody at Camp Livingston in Louisiana. Guess they keep her dress from getting spotted!

Source: Sidney Daily news, Friday, March 07, 1941, Page 8.

Antique Collectors Grab Hold of the Idea

After this, the mentions are quite sparce, until we get to 1958, and again, an antique collector (Richard K Barnett, who lives in the Biltmore Hotel), claims to have an “Egyptian Tear Catcher”

“Open a cabinet and you will find a ‘museum’ of butterflies and bettles… drawers of them. Turn to the wall and Blue Boy, in butterfly wings, looks at you. A miniature vase turns out to be no vase but an Egyptian tear catcher.”

Dayton Daily News, Sunday January 19, 1958. Page 98.

And this blows up into an antique-collecting phenomenon!

Mrs Ray Harlow, formerly Mrs Evelyn Harlow Southwick of Cape Cod has a museum in a house belonging to her prior ancestors and collects bottles, including “a hand-blown Persian tear catcher, which was used at funerals;” (Tampa Tribune, July 20, 1958, Page 91)

Mrs Martin Eck of Elizabethtown collects pewter, and included are “‘tear catchers’… the tear catchers are fashioned in the shape of a tear and were said to be used to ‘catch tears,’ One can note the obvious difference between the old and new pewter by the sheen of the latter.” Sunday News, Sunday, September 24, 1967. Page 16.

The Golden Rain Seal Beach Leisure World News, Thursday March 15, 1979, Page 14.

And now, well into the 70s, the antique collector stigma is well and truly established. But we morph the originals- from India, to Egypt, to Persia. But when did they end up being Victorian?


The Victorian Mourning Myth

The first mention of overlap I can find is in 1994. All along my money was on the Victorian romanticism of the 1990s!

In 1994, we see an estate auction listing in several newspapers for Judge Walter Nelson and Mrs Pat Nelson. Included in the auction are many antiques, including “Tear catcher, scent bottles”

This is the first mention I can find where they seem to overlap with the Victorian idea, simply by listing it next to scent bottles.

And then, in 1997. We have it. Boom.

“Sailing through History… Victorian Mourning. From widow’s weeds and funeral frocks to wake takes and tear catchers, you won’t believe how they used to grieve, through October. Old Town Hall Museum”

The News Journal, Friday, September 12, 1997, page 66.

One of the most treasured items in the Majkas’ collection of mourning artifacts is a tear catcher. In some private moment, a close friend or relative would give a new widow a slender four-inch glass vial with a tiny tube running through its center. The widow could then shed her solitary tears into the vial and seal it with wax. Her preserved tears were to be a perpetual memory of her heartbrack. The practice was based on Psalm 56:8, which instructs, “Put my tears in thy bottle.”

The Majkas’ tear catcher appears to have been used. A speck of tannish residue rests at the bottom.

The Akron Beacon Journal, Sunday, November 01, 1998. Page 21

A tiny speck of tan residue, you say? Surely, could not be perfume or oil!

Several articles afterward continue in similar vein through the 1990s to 2000s.


The Fact Roundup

So, after all this research, just done quickly over a few hours, what can we assume?

  • Firstly, I could find no references to “tear catchers” in Victorian records. Zilch. I may do a further deep-dive, but at present, there’s no evidence that they were used by “Victorian widows.” In an age of advertising, industrial revolution, mail order items, and fads, there would likely be mentions. It’s not like mourning was taboo (like contraceptives or menstruation talk). It’s openly talked about, customs are known, and it was a popular market. Surely they would have been mentioned.
  • The records we do have of “tear catchers” are slang for handkerchiefs, especially those used during theatricals or films.
  • Sometime during the 1930s the fad for antique collecting ramped up, and from the 1930s through the 1970s “tear catchers” were claimed to be of origin from Egypt, Persia, or Iran, and were shaped like little urns or vases. *Not* western, Victorian women. Not glass tubes.
  • Sometime in the 1990s the “Victorian Widow” lore cropped up, likely due to the romanticism of the Victorian era during this time period.
  • Antique collecting circles are where we see any mention of “tear catchers” as an object that collected tears.
  • The collectors do not provide primary sources from the periods or cultures of which they claim the items originated. There’s a vague reference to a biblical scripture, but since many of the Psalms were poems, it’s not evidence of practical use rather than poetic implication for feeling.
  • There are, however, plenty of mention of perfume vials.

Make of it what you will.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little dive into looking at collecting legend through primary sources. If you have anything to add, or know if the mention of “tear catchers” in other cultures are accurate (or inaccurate), please do let me know in the comments.

5 Comments on Victorian “Tear Catchers”- a Frequent Myth

  1. Nicole
    July 10, 2024 at 5:24 pm (1 week ago)

    Very interesting, I am enjoying your myth busting posts lately!

    Reply
    • Lauren
      July 14, 2024 at 12:24 pm (5 days ago)

      Thank you! It’s so fun to find out where these myths originate from!

      Reply
  2. Natalie Ferguson
    July 12, 2024 at 6:23 am (1 week ago)

    Really enjoyed reading your delve into the world of antiques myths. They abound, don’t they?

    Loved the quotes…

    Very best,

    Natalie

    Reply
    • Lauren
      July 14, 2024 at 12:24 pm (5 days ago)

      Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  3. Maryanne (MrsC)
    July 16, 2024 at 11:54 pm (2 days ago)

    Oh my, I read Tear Cather and thought of nail polish administered to a stocking hole to prevent runs! Totally different context. Everything is about sewing, until it isn’t!

    Reply

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