Sailors' Valentines - Johnson, Jennifer Sheperd

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

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Two valentines at Mystic Seaport are hinged octagons with star and heart patterns on each side. One was made with twelve varieties of shells, shaped to form a heart on the left and a five-pointed star on the right. Bright yellow paper dividers separate the shells. The second is both smaller and more intricate, with similar star and heart designs, but with wooden dividers separating pale pink, lavender, green, and white Caribbean shells.

One unusual valentine at the Seaport is anchor-shaped with a heart-shaped pin cushion at the cross bar. Over 200 shells of 10 different types were glued in place onto a wood and green-velvet backing. Several Seaport visitors have reported that they have quite similar examples, which may have been made from the same pattern. This suggests that the anchor pattern was especially popular and, far from being a unique, sailor-made item, may have been manufactured in quantity by island artisans.

Sailors” valentines from the end of the nineteenth century often had sentimental messages in English, like "Forget me Not,“ "Home sweet home," and even "A Present From Barbados.” These shell mosaics look more like tourist souvenirs and commercialized trinkets than earlier examples.

Shell mosaics are similar in composition to nineteenth—century shell collections, which were also divided into geometric patterns. The shell collections differ from valentines though, and are typically housed in rectangular boxes or standing cabinets with loose, unglued shells. Collecting shells was a popular nineteenth-century hobby, and people spent many hours sorting, identifying, and cataloging varieties and species. Unlike sailors’ valentines, shell collections often contained shells from all over the world, not just the West Indies. Shell collections might even include sharks’ teeth. Some captains collected shells on voyages around the world, and their collections were showcases of their voyages and adventures.

The Seaport’s sailors' valentines fall some-where between strictly scientific collections and tourist souvenirs. Though they may have been purchased from shoreside Barbados peddlers rather than being made on shipboard, they could be cherished in New England parlors. Although they were probably not made by sailors, a sailors’ valentine could serve as a reminder of loved ones at sea, or of the exotic ports once visited. For us, they may not provide insight on sailor life, but they do speak to the ingenuity of native craftspeople and to the enduring desire to surround ourselves with mementos of other places and other people.

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