After long sea voyages in the early 1800’s, sailors returned home to wives, mothers and sweethearts with wondrous gifts from their travels. Among these wondrous and exotic gifts were what we now call “Sailor’s Valentines.” These intricate designs created with seashells were highly sought after, then and now. There are many serious collectors of these antique works of art as well as modern creations that are truly fantastic! It was thought that these early souvenirs were created by the sailors themselves, but it has been found that very few of them were actually made by sailors. They would not have the resources to precisely place and glue each shell, especially on a rolling ship!
Many of the original valentines required restoration in later years, and the experts doing the restoration work underneath the shell designs found pieces of newspaper from the island of Barbados in the Caribbean. One of them actually found an advertisement from that newspaper placed by a merchant in Barbados announcing their stock of souvenirs including “Sailor’s Valentines.” When researchers began realizing the importance of these clues, they also discovered that 99 percent of the seashells used were from the Caribbean and commonly found on Barbados. More research proved that these Valentines were generally ready-made for purchase. Some had common Victorian sayings such as “Love the Giver,” “From a Friend” and “Remember Me.” A few of them had open slots at the top for the insertion of a photograph to be included. Though it was possible to order personalized Valentines that could be picked up on a future voyage, most were ready made for the souvenir trade.
Following the Victorian era love of all things from the Natural World, many homes contained special rooms known as “Cabinets of Curiosity.” Victorian ladies also began creating designs using quantities of the seashells that could be brought by ship from the Caribbean and other distant places, such as the Philippine Islands. Pictures using the shells mirrored the designs from the Sailor’s Valentines as well as delicate flowers created using the shells.
Modern designers have continued and expanded these exquisite works of Art and produced examples that are highly sought after by collectors and those who simply enjoy the sense of the ocean world brought into the home. The next time you take a walk on a beach, think of ways you could use the shells you find there yourself. Perhaps create a picture design or make a wind chime; the possibilities are up to your imagination. But we can appreciate the work and thought that went into those antique original “Sailor’s Valentines.”
Written by HMNS Curator of Malacology Tina Petway.