September 30, 2011
In the movie “Deathly Hallows Part Two,” Hermione whipped out a long thin glass bottle for Harry Potter to catch Severus Snape’s tears as he died. No doubt the important role of that bottle delighted some merchandizers who envision pushing a revival of the ‘tear catcher’ tradition. Antique dealers no doubt feel ecstatic at the prospect of a whole generation of Potter fans saving their tears.
Tear catchers, also known as lachrymatory or tear bottles, have a long history. They are mentioned in the Bible. There are Roman references and Egyptian examples. It appears that the bottles were associated with wealth, a likely assumption as to who would have had the extra denarii to spend on storing tears.
The Victorian reintroduction of tear catchers spread to all classes. When loved ones passed on, mourners collected tears in special bottles. The bottles’ stoppers had a tiny hole that allowed the tears to evaporate. A dry bottle signified that the mourning period had come to an end.
During the American Civil War soldiers gave their new brides tear bottles before they departed for duty, according to TearBottle.com. The idea was that their wives, distraught with their departure, would capture their tears, and as bereavement continued they would add more tears to the glass cylinders. A returning soldier would know his wife had been duly sad during his absence if he found that the bottle was full. If a soldier was killed, his wife would mark the end of the first year of mourning by pouring the collected tears on his grave.
Women in Aspen’s mining era endured plenty of occasions to shed tears. They lived a hard life, and death at a young age was common. Many women died during childbirth and, too often, children did not live beyond infancy. Hardworking husbands lived short lives, and the life of a widow was fraught with economic challenge.
Death descended on Aspenites so often it took four undertakers to keep up with the demand. W. E. Turley on Cooper Avenue did the most business. Allen and Wilson on South Mill were major competitors in the 1890s.
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J. C. Johnsen served as coroner for many years. His business, on the corner of Main and Mill across from the Jerome Hotel, lasted to the end of the century when it was bought by competitor Belden and Beall.
Belden and Beall had a prominent location in the Collins Block Building. As was common for all of Aspen’s undertakers/embalmers, they were also all in the furniture business. The combination of the furniture business and funerals was a natural outgrowth of furniture makers’ building caskets.
Funeral homes today sell funeral accessories just as auto dealers hawk extras for cars. However, somehow Victorian undertakers missed out on the tear catcher business, leaving jewelry stores and proprietors who sold perfume to capitalize on the fad.