If you’ve ever visited Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, there’s a good chance you may have seen the colorful shell combinations and mind-blowing patterns of a sailor’s valentine. These colorful, intricate, symmetrical shell mosaics made mostly from 1830–1900 are a highly sought-after collectible item, due to both their stunning beauty and fascinating history.
A 19th century sailor's valentine at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, Sanibel, Florida. Sailor's valentine made circa 1875, The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Antique sailor's valentine, ca. 1870.
The 100-plus-hour process of making a sailor’s valentine involved gluing seashells onto cotton inside an octagonal wooden box frame anywhere from 8 to 18 inches wide, then attaching a glass front to the box. Some sailor’s valentines had small shells arranged to spell out a simple message and some even consisted of two different wooden boxes, attached with a hinge. Sailor’s valentines gained popularity partly because of a Victorian shell collection craze (conchylomania) that swept across England, the United States, and the Netherlands in the mid-late 1800s.
Cover of She Blows! and Sparm at That! by William John Hopkins, 1922. Scrimshaw ocean whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett, born in 1805 on Nantucket
The beautiful anchors, compass roses, and heart centerpieces used in these mosaics are possible reasons for the name “sailor’s valentine.” The other reason for the name relates to the commonly told origin story of these mosaics. The tale goes that in the 1800s, lonely, artistic, lovesick sailors would collect piles of shells throughout their long journeys and create magnificent pieces of art to give to their loved ones upon their return.
Pretty romantic, right? It’s also false.
Most nineteenth-century sailor’s valentines actually originate from the Caribbean island of Barbados, which was a large seaport at the time. This exciting discovery was made in the mid-twentieth century when a woman restoring an old sailor’s valentine found an early-nineteenth-century newspaper clipping from The Barbadian inside, with a written note describing that the items from Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados. Brothers B.H. and George Belgrave sold the valentines in their shop, which were created by local artists, and some of these antiques still have a label from the New Curiosity Shop inside.
Fisuerlla barbadensis (Barbados keyhole limpet shell). Janthina janthina (common purple sea snail shell). Chione paphia (King Venus clam shell).
It’s now commonly believed that Barbadian women crafted these wonderful pieces of art using shells from the island or imported from Indonesia. The valentines were sold to visiting sailors, who would take them home to their lovers. There’s another fact to support this claim: most of the known sailor’s valentines from the nineteenth century use shells that originate from the West Indies, such as purple snail shells, Barbados keyhole limpets, and King Venus clams.
These beautiful shell mosaics are valued collectibles, and there has is a growing interest in creating them today. For those that now attempt to make sailor’s valentines, little has changed in the painstaking process, except that artists now use more modern and convenient materials.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.