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They Sold Shell Hearts by the Sea Shore

Sailor's Valentine, late 19th Century
Probably New Curiosity Shop (1879-1925); Bridgetown, Barbados
Shell, wood and adhesive; 13 3/4 x 13 3/4 x 1 5/8 in.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Burton W. Fink
From a Whaler’s Heart
Despite whaling now being a somewhat romanticized New England tradition, romance was hard to keep alive during multi-year hunting expeditions. Already by the late 18th Century the water surrounding whaling capitols such as New Bedford and Nantucket was fished dry. Whaling expeditions had to venture farther and farther to be successful, and could last as long as four years. Keepsakes brought back from these long journeys at sea were one of the ways sailors made their absences up to their estranged wives upon their return. Whalers who doubled as talented scrimshanders carved beautiful and delightful trinkets, utensils and tools for their darlings; for those without the talent or patience to spend hours carvings these detailed works other options were available. In honor of Valentine’s Day, this post looks at the history and manufacture of the sailor’s valentine, a love-themed curio made from shells and usually housed in an octagonal box.
The Sailor's Farewell, 1854-1865
Leopold Grozelier (French-born American, 1830-1865)
Tinted lithograph
Collections of the American Antiquarian Society
Shell Game
Considering the volume of heartfelt keepsakes New England whalers did create, it might not seem so far-fetched that these sailor’s valentines are also their handiwork. There are a few issues with this theory, however. Sailors generally lacked access to the tools required to make these objects. Especially the wood and glass of the frames would be difficult to come by and work to the exactness seen here on the high seas. What is more likely is that the valentines were mass-made in Barbados. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species of shell, only around 35 different species have been identified in sailor’s valentines, all of which are endemic to Barbados. The mahogany used in the frames as well as the pine more subtly worked into the backing also grow on Barbados. More insurmountable evidence for centralized production on the island nation was revealed when conservation work on sailor’s valentines found Barbados newspapers used as backing for the arrangements. The uniformity of most sailor’s valentines is also an important consideration. They are almost universally unsigned, set in octagonal glass cases, and share design features such as the identical clusters of shells shaped into diamond, triangular, semi-circular, and floral sections.
Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop, c. 1893
The New Curiosity Shop
Surviving shell artworks from Barbados date as far back as the 1750s. Their refinement into tastefully constructed sailor’s valentines seems to date from around 1829 when a sailor named James Creagh recorded a purchase of an octagonal valentine. Most surviving sailor’s valentines from the 19thCentury appear to have come from one specific source in Barbados: the New Curiosity Shop in in Bridgetown. The store was owned first by Benjamin Hinds Belgrave and later by his younger brother George Gordon Belgrave. The Belgrave family moved to Barbados in the mid 18thCentury, meaning that the pair were likely born and raised there. As entrepreneurial souls, they took advantage of Barbados’ location as a popular port of call for whalers, traders, and travelers to sell souvenirs. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the pair took the popular form of sailor’s valentines and sold them on a large scale along with other island keepsakes. The specifics of manufacture were not recorded, but work of collecting shells and creating the valentines was likely carried out by local Barbadians. Between 1878 and 1925, when the last of the two brothers passed away, the two sold hundreds of these valentines.

How sailors bearing these valentines would have been met by their wives is anyone’s guess. Whether intricate shell work could serve as a replacement for years of being gone probably depended in large part on the quality of that sailor’s company when present. With advances in travel we are thankfully never more than a day away from our loved ones, but with our annual celebration of love just passed, it is as good a time as any to think about the ways we could shell-flessly share our love with one another!
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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