I first heard about Sailor’s Valentines while on vacation at Sanibel Island, Florida. We visited the famed Bailey Shell Museum, where several examples of this beautiful art, old and new, were on display. The Museum also posted a brief explanation of the rich tradition and history attached to this vintage shell art form. I fell in love instantly!
What is a Sailor’s Valentine? A sailor's valentine is a type of antique souvenir, often brought home from a sailor's voyage at sea as a special gift for his loved one. They are a shell art form developed during the early nineteenth century (some say even earlier) featuring a specific shape and style.
Traditionally, a Sailor’s Valentine was created inside a hinged, octagonal shaped wooden box, usually two-sided, with a metal clasp (clasps were sometimes heart-shaped). The Valentines generally included a large flower or heart design in the center, surrounded by a shell pattern. This could be either a romantic phrase like "Forget-me-not" or "Remember me,” or an elaborate pattern of small shells in various shapes and colors. Sometimes a picture was used as the focal point instead of a shell creation.
The boxes served as frames for the shell work, and often featured glass fronts to protect the delicate pieces inside. The Valentines ranged from 8" to 15" in width, and were composed mostly of small shells (of various kinds and colors) glued to a backing. The boxes were generally made of Spanish cedar, and the octagon was reminiscent of the shape of vintage compasses.
A vintage Sailor's Valentine for sale at christies.com
History of the Valentines Contrary to myth, sailor's valentines were usually not made by sailors in order to pass time at sea. That idea started long ago when sailors returning from long sea voyages gave them as gifts to wives and lovers, telling the women that the boxes were tokens of love created especially for them during the long sea voyage.
Sailors told tales of collecting seashells from the various places they landed to create the tokens. The men would then spend the long lonely hours aboard ship thinking of their loved one, while turning the shell collection into an intricate work of art.
When they returned home they would present these love tokens to their sweethearts or wives as a symbol of their devotion. It was better than any card or letter a woman could receive as it could hang on her wall for years to come, speaking of her man’s deep love.
In reality, it would have taken months of searching to collect the right shells, then use them to assemble such an intricate and delicate treasure. In fact, the unique shell art form we call Sailor’s Valentines was developed by the women of Caribbean areas. Historians believe that, between 1830 and 1880, when trade routes for whalers brought sailors to the island of Barbados (an important seaport during this time), the women who produced most of those early tokens sold them to the sailors as souvenirs.
In the course of their jobs, sailors carried them from the Caribbean to New England, to ports most of the whalers and other ships called home. British seamen also took them to England in the course of their travels. There Victorian women, already fascinated by sea shells and romantic gestures, took up the art form and created their own versions of the Valentines.
Sailors Valentines Today Traditional Sailor’s Valentines are becoming harder and harder to find, and they command huge prices – that’s why I don’t own one. These antique treasures are unique collectibles, valued for their beauty and intricacy. Many of the best examples are highly prized museum exhibits.
Originally Sailor's Valentines were made individually by hand, never mass produced. Specific materials and techniques were always used. In fact, quality vintage Sailors' Valentines can usually be traced back to their maker.
These vintage Valentines continue to inspire shell artists today. While only a few shell artists are recreating these beauties in the traditional style, many of us have found ways to create smaller and less intricate versions. Collectors have sparked a resurgence of interest in the art form, and new versions of the vintage Valentines are available at more reasonable prices. Crafters who want to work with shells can even purchase kits and patterns from many craft sites to save themselves the hassle of locating a perfect pattern or kind of shell.
Conclusions Although this unique art form is as old at the 1800's, it fits remarkably well with the resurgence of interest in traditional crafts. Here in Florida, shells are abundant at a variety of gift and shell outlets, or even free if you want to take the time to collect them at local beaches. Most of us have a lot of beautiful specimens we collected over the years and don’t know how to use. The solution may be as old as the 19th century: Sailor’s Valentines.