by Martha Whitney Butler
This month - Sailor's Valentines: These sentimental souvenirs made from shells were a hot commodity at Caribbean ports of call in the 1800s - now they're hot collectibles.
I like to think about the antique anticipations and expressiveness of women before me. Were the women of the mid-1800s as demure as I picture them to be? I can only imagine the perfectly poised expressions emitted by ladies upon receiving a primitive seashell handicraft from a maritime suitor.
He'd been out on the open sea chasing Moby Dick around for two years and I'm sure he smelled delightful. The conversation probably went something like this: "How are... things? Oh, by the way, I brought you back this nifty decorative seashell thing.”
The "Valentines" were comprised of tiny indigenous shells assembled in intricate patterns — including hearts, flowers, and nautical themes — and then set into octagonal boxes. Some designs even left room for a photo. The shell mosaic was encased in glass and the box then folded and clasped (most commonly with a heart) to allow for safe traveling.
These manifestations of true love are referred to as Sailor's Valentines. Sounds pretty romantic, huh? These seashell trinkets were supposed to help make up for all the years of missed holidays, pivotal moments, and emotional solitude — in addition to unbridled longing and frustration.
Of course, could you ever imagine a sailor on the madly heaving seas steadily crafting a perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, shell creation that had "Thinking of You" spelled out in tiny seashells? Not saying it couldn't happen... but no, it didn’t. This rumor was developed in the 1930s by antique dealers who made a very optimistic assumption based on the nomenclature of this item. Face it, “LOVE” sells.
Now, thanks to decades of false advertising, it's a common misconception that sailors actually put effort into creating these shell-encrusted crafts. No. They were too busy flirting with the super-hot chicks from Barbados who actually did craft them.
Two English brothers who set up The New Curiosity Shop in Bridgeport, Barbados are credited with the proliferation of these Valentines and crafting a cottage industry in the island. Keep in mind that Barbados was the last port of call before setting sail for home. It was like the impulse aisle of the whole journey and these babies were going like hotcakes. Custom patterns and sayings could even be worked into the shell Valentines — for a price. As a result, women (and children) in Barbados found themselves in the workplace, tediously producing these souvenirs.
As the whaling industry began to decline, so did the sales of these creations. However, the art form remained popular and became a fun hobby for 19th century housewives everywhere. Although the true Valentines remain those of the octagonal diptych variety, the cover-everything-in-seashells movement has extended throughout time, producing many items now deemed Sailor's Valentines. Despite what this extremely biased and bitter article says about these beautiful creations, the originals are actually worth quite a bit of money these days. Some fetch thousands of dollars.
Basically, these things were the gas-station-rose-in-a-glass-tube of their day. But let's face it, women haven't changed through the centuries. We're still generally thrilled to get any gift from a man. Most of us are happy if we even get a box of four paraffin sugar bombs brandishing a washed-up Looney Tune and we'll devour those chocolates before the box is open all the way.
To read more about Sailor's Valentines, click here for Bill Jordan's blog.