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The Truth About Sailor’s Valentines

Do you know where Sailor’s Valentines originated from? If you guessed that they were made by sailors for their loved ones, you would be wrong! In fact, the majority of high specification Sailor’s Valentines originated from the Caribbean, principally Barbados.

19TH CENTURY SAILORS VALENTINE depicting heart and floral motif the other inscribed Think of Me
19TH CENTURY SAILORS VALENTINE depicting heart and floral motif the other inscribed Think of Me. Sold for £2,200 at McTears, April 2109.

These Sailor’s Valentines are now a highly sought-after collectors item, with some pieces selling for thousands at auction! There are also many shellcraft items actually made by sailors but many of these are quite primitive and might for example be a sewing needle case decorated with shells. In this feature we look at the boxed form examples made by the artisans in the Caribbean in the 19th century.

What are Sailors Valentines?

Sailor’s Valentines are a type of folk art that were typically composed of seashells arranged in a frame, and they often include colorful designs and romantic and sentimental messages.

A sailors double-sided shellwork valentine featuring flower basket and Love the Giver
A sailor’s double-sided shellwork valentine Barbados, late 19th century Octagonal form, the left side with round center with inscription, “Love The Giver,” the right side with shells arranged as a flower basket, hinged wood case. Sold for $8,820 at Freeman’s Auctioneers, November 2021.

A classic sailor Valentine is an octagonal, glass-fronted, hinged wooden box that is 8 to 20 inches (20 to 51 cm) wide and features beautiful symmetrical decorations made completely of tiny sea shells of different colours that have been attached to a background. The name comes from the fact that the designs frequently include a focal point, like a compass rose, heart, or flower basket and that occasionally the tiny shells are utilised to form the letters of a motto or a special message.

Sailors Valentine Shells arranged with heart and With Love inscription octagonal hinged case
19th Century Sailors Valentine Shells arranged with heart and With Love inscription octagonal hinged case. Sold for $3,250 at Freeman’s Auctioneers, April 2020.

Messages noted include ‘ Think of Me ‘, and ‘ Remember Me When This You See ‘, ‘Love The Giver ‘, ‘ Love Be True ‘, and ‘ Home Sweet Home ‘.

Origins of Sailors Valentines

While the exact origin of Sailors Valentines is unclear, it is believed that they originated in the 19th century and were at their most popular between 1830 and 1890. They were designed to be brought home from a sailor’s voyage at sea and given to the sailor’s loved one or loved ones.

19th century Sailors Valentines one octagonal wooden case with an intricate shell design including heart motif, and with glass cover. Also with another shell valentine with floral design, glass cover missing. Probably originally fixed together as one item. Each 34.5cms across. Sold for £2,200 at Lawrences Auctioneers, September 2020.

The romantic notion was that they were made by the sailors whilst on their travels but it now thought that they were actually made by artisans in the Caribbean and sold as gifts. One shop in Barbados, the New Curiosity Shop, has become recently noted as being one of the principal places selling these Sailor’s Valentines. Some cases have been found still bearing the shops label – B.H. Belgrave Barbados. B.H. (Benjamin Hinds) Belgrave opened the New Curiosity Shop – featuring “Marine Specimens and Native Manufactures in Fancy Work” – in Bridgetown Barbados in 1878. Now known as the primary source of Sailors Valentines, the shop was later taken over and operated by his brother, George Belgrave, from 1895 until his death in 1925.

The market for Sailor’s Valentines

There is a strong market for high specification examples in excellent condition. The market is stronger in North America with many more examples appearing at auction there. Fine examples sell for upwards of £2,000 / $2,500.

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