Sailor’s Valentines

Sailors’ valentines were gifts from sailors to their sweethearts that often included affectionate sayings with their designs. For many years, collectors and scholars thought that sailors made these decorative objects during their long voyages at sea. While sailors made items such as scrimshaw and wool works aboard vessels,2 they would not have had access to the variety of shells, paper, glass, and wood necessary to make these valentines. Research has also shown that they were made specifically for the souvenir trade, mainly in the West Indies.

Though there are some valentines that incorporate the sayings “Gift from Trinidad” or “Present from St. Lucia,” most of the known valentines are associated with Barbados. From the 1630s to the turn of the twentieth century, Barbados, located at the easternmost point of the British West Indies, was an important English and later American port of call for goods such as sugar, rum, lumber, and fish. In the nineteenth century, a souvenir culture thrived in response to sailors hoping to bring back mementos of their travels. Since shells were a natural commodity on the islands, they were incorporated into a variety of decorative items—from picture frames to cameo work. Production of valentines reached its height in the mid- to late nineteenth century, with some earlier examples known. The Victorian love for collecting and displaying exotic objects from afar possibly fueled the industry and no doubt played to the enthusiasm for the valentines, which comprised hundreds of shells in intricate designs.

Traditional valentines are octagonal in shape and consist of two boxes hinged to one another, hence the term double valentines. Occasionally a large single valentine will come on the market, but typically, single valentines have been separated from their other halves. Generally made with mahogany sides and top and Spanish cedar bottoms, the insides of the boxes are lined with colored paper, often pink, on which cotton batting is placed. Shells and seeds are then glued in mosaic-like patterns, often repeating similar design templates; colored paper placed on edge serves to delineate the design. Glass is inset on each side to protect the valentine when the box is open.

Sentiments typically appear only on the smaller 9 1/2-inch double valentines, which often incorporate a heart design on the other half. Some of the more popular phrases include “To My Sweetheart,” “To My Love,” “Home Again,” and “From a Friend.” The larger 13 1/2- to 14-inch examples rarely have sayings, but display more intricate shell-work designs on both sides, most commonly a compass rose in combination with a heart.

By Diana H. Bittel