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Sailors' Valentines
Souvenirs From the Heart
by Bob Brooke 


A 19th-century Sailor's Valentine from Barbados.

During the mid-19th century, sailors often spent years aboard ships in search of whales or moving cargo from one port of call to another. When they put into port to exchange cargo or gather provisions, they often went in search of unique souvenirs to take back to their wives and girlfriends. One of these, the sailors’ valentine, originated on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.

Most sailor’s valentines date from the early 19th century. Beginning in 1830, whaling ships set sail from Nantucket and later New Bedford, Massachusetts in search of mighty whales, from which they extracted whale oil used to grease the machines of the Industrial Revolution.

While Nantucket was the center of whaling in New England—at its height nearly 400 ships called the island port home—these weren’t the only types of ships that sailed the oceans of the world. Sailing ships, later known as clippers because of their fast speed, sailed to all the major ports of the world. From the early to the latter part of the 19th century when steam-powered ships took over the seas, the sailors aboard them were often gone from home for several years and missed their wives and girlfriends.

Between about 1830 and 1880, residents of Bridgetown, Barbados made and sold unusual octagonal boxes filled with seashells, which later came to be known as "Sailor’s Valentines" to the lonely English and American sailors.

From the 1630s to the end of the 19th century, Barbados was an important port of call for sugar, rum, lumber, and fish. Because of this, a number of shops catered to the souvenir trade. The Victorian love for collecting and displaying exotic objects from afar possibly fueled the industry and contributed to the popularity of these unique works of shell folk art.

Historians believe that most of the sailors' valentines came from the New Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street in Bridgetown, owned by two English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, who hired locals to make the valentines.

The local valentine makers constructed the special octagonal, hinged boxes, ranging in size from 8 to 15 inches wide and 2˝-3 inches high, using mahogany veneer for the sides and native cedar wood called cedrella, for the bottoms. Then they lined the insides of the boxes with colored paper, most often pink, onto which they placed cotton batting. Next they glued hundreds of colorful tiny seashells in intricate symmetrical mosaic designs incorporating hearts and flowers, which often featured a compass rose or heart centerpiece. After gluing down all the shells, the maker placed a piece of glass over the design to protect it. The hinged versions became known as double valentines.

Sometimes the makers incorporated a special sentimental message that a sailor would request into the design, thus the name Sailors’ Valentines. Sentiments typically appeared only on the smaller 9˝-inch double valentines, which often displayed a heart motif on the opposite half. Some of the more popular ones were “To My Sweetheart,” “To My Love,” “Home Again,” and “From a Friend.” The larger 13˝- to 14-inch valentines rarely had sayings, but instead had more intricate shell-work designs on both sides.

Today, Sailors’ Valentines command high prices at auctions and antique shows. Some of the best, however, are part of the collections of the New Bedford and Nantucket Whaling Museums, the Peabody Essex Museum, all in Massachusetts, and Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

Collectors value antique sailors' valentines for their beauty and unusual qualities. But their high prices make it difficult for most beginning collectors to acquire the originals. A small double valentine that twenty years ago sold for $350 to $600, now sells for $500 to $1,500, and the price for a large double valentine has jumped from $1,000 to between $2,500 and $10,000—that is if either can be found.

Plus, a thriving business making new sailors’ valentines has emerged on Nantucket Many of these have frames that have been faux finished to imitate the original woods and their designs copied to imitate the originals. Beyond the souvenir shops, collectors must be vigilant because many of these imitations have been sold as antiques.

Condition is important when considering the purchase of a sailors’ valentine. It should have most of its original shells and the box should be as damage free as possible. The more popular ones with collectors are those with motifs other than the heart and compass rose design, such as anchors, vases of flowers, or detailed single flowers.

Read more about whaling antiques.

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