Sailors' Valentines - Johnson, Jennifer Sheperd

Log of Mystic Seaport, Vol. 43, no. 4.(Winter, 1992): 106-107.

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Like countless others before him, Lafcadio Hearn was struck by the sight of Barbados when he visited the island for the first time in the 1890s. Barbados, the most windward of the Caribbean islands, was visited by merchant seamen, whalemen, and yachtsmen alike, who arrived for a variety of reasons, including trading, reprovisioning, and touring the island. Visitors who wanted to remember the island by bringing a tangible reminder of Barbados home with them could easily find objects made on the island.

Barbados was densely populated, and though many found work in the dominant sugarcane industry, other islanders turned to peddling as a way to support themselves. Local merchants were eager to sell souvenirs to visitors. Susan de Forest Day, who traveled on the yacht Scythian in the 1890s, noted: "the whole population [of Bridgetown, Barbados] seems to be gathered together to prey upon us. Crowds cluster around us with strange things to sell tied around their necks."2 Day may have been approached by a peddler eager to sell a popular keepsake called a shell mosaic, or "sailors’ valentine."

A typical sailors’ valentine is a shallow, octagonal, wooden box displaying seashells arranged in elaborate geometric patterns. Wooden or cardboard slats separate the shells by type and color, dividing the box into compartments that together form intricate designs, often star or heart shapes. The shells were glued to cotton batting and the work was protected from dust and handling by a pane of glass.

In the popular imagination, sailors’ valentines (like scrimshaw) were made aboard ship by homesick seamen who occupied their dog watch leisure time fabricating intricate patterns with shells they had collected on exotic beaches. Although mariners did collect shells during their travels, most sailors’ valentines were made from fewer than twenty varieties of shells, usually all of which are found in the West Indies. Research on the styles and composition of sailors` valentines indicates that most of the pieces popularly called sailors’ valentines were, in fact, made in the West Indies—particularly Barbados—and purchased there by visitors, whether they were sailors or travelers for pleasure. Thus, most were neither sailor—made nor strictly St. Valentines Day gifts.

* Funding for digitization provided by: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc.