Vintage finds for your valentine

Editorial Staff Art

A Fisher-Wife
The soonest mended, nothing said;
And help may rise from east or west;
But my two hands are lumps of lead,
My heart sits leaden in my breast.

O north wind swoop not from the north,
O south wind linger in the south,
Oh come not raving raging forth,
To bring my heart into my mouth;

For I’ve a husband out at sea,
Afloat on feeble planks of wood;
He does not know what fear may be;
I would have told him if I could.

I would have locked him in my arms,
I would have hid him in my heart;
For oh! the waves are fraught with harms,
And he and I so far apart.

-Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

It is difficult to ignore the saccharine gestures that crop up every year for Valentine’s Day. While the vocabulary of love has found various forms over the centuries and throughout cultures, one fascinating and charming version of a valentine that has endured is the sailors’ valentine—shellwork tokens, which from about 1830 to 1890, were given by sailors to their loved ones upon their return home.

Sailors’ valentines were typically fashioned in a two-sided hinged octagonal mahogany box between 8 and 15 inches wide protected by glass. Within the box were artistic arrangements of colorful and decorative designs composed entirely of shells. These symmetrical, mosaic-like creations incorporated floral, geometric, and heart-shaped motifs that often framed a sentimental inscription such as “To My Sweetheart,” “Home Again,” and “Remember Me.”

The popularity of sailors’ valentines peaked during the late Victorian era, illustrating the period’s interest in the collection and display of exotic objects. Research has refuted the belief that sailors crafted the valentines themselves, but rather supports that they were products of the souvenir trade on the island of Barbados, an important seaport and popular rest stop for long sea voyages. Several examples have been found that include the label of B.H. Belgrave, a dealer in fancywork who operated a shop on Belgrave Street in Barbados. Some conjecture that the popularity of shellwork may have also spurred the specialized manufacturing of sailors’ valentines in England as well.

Today, there is increasing interest among collectors for these nautical souvenirs resulting in a rise in price and higher selection standards (large and elaborate sailors’ valentines that have come to the market in recent years have fetched between $15,000 and $25,000). In general, when acquiring a vintage piece it is important to consider the condition the shells, making sure that they are unbroken; furthermore, keep in mind that there is a particular desire for the decorative compositions that incorporate motifs other than hearts, such as anchors or other intricately detailed objects.

Whether on the hunt for a vintage piece, a contemporary one, or simply inspired to make your own, there are plenty of resources available online. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Images clockwise from top left: 20th century valentine by Martha Farham Cahoon (Eldred’s); “Think of Me” valentine, 19th century (West Sea Company); contemporay “Love You” valentine by Linda Susan Hennigan (Linda Susan Hennigan); contemporary valentine by Meg Withstandley (Heir Antiques); single heart antique valentine (Diana H. Bittel)

To learn more about sailors’ valentines, you might want to check out the book Sailors’ Valentines by John Fondas (Rizzoli, 2002). If you’re interested in purchasing one, dealers Diana H. Bittel, and Roberto Frietas specialize in this area. Also, be sure to check listings for upcoming auctions—Christie’s, Northeast Auctions, Skinner, and regional auction houses frequently offer them for sale.

Top image: Large double sailors’ valentine with anchor motif. Courtesy of Northeast Auctions. Center image: A pair of framed rectangular sailors’ valentines. Courtesy of Christie’s Images.