the mid 19th century, men spent years aboard sailing ships in search of
whales and moving cargo from one port of call to the next. When they
stopped to exchange cargo or gather provisions, they went ashore,
discovering unique souvenirs to take home to their wives and
girlfriends. Besides objects decorated with scrimshaw,
which they, themselves, made, they found some unusual octagonal wooden
boxes filled with seashells on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.
Between about 1830 and 1880, enterprising residents of Barbados made
and sold what have come to be known as Sailor’s Valentines to the
lonely sailors, many of whom had sailed out of their home ports of New
Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts, the center of the whaling trade.
They constructed the special hinged valentine boxes, ranging in size
from 8 to 15 inches across, of native cedar wood called cedrella,
then they filled them with hundreds of colorful tiny seashells in
intricate symmetrical mosaic designs incorporating hearts and flowers,
which often featured a compass rose centerpiece. Sometimes they included
a special sentimental message that the sailor would order, thus the name
Sailor’s Valentine. After gluing down all the shells, the maker placed
a piece of glass over the design to protect them.
Collectors of nautical and whaling memorabilia command high prices at
auctions throughout the country, especially in Massachusetts. Some of
the best, however, are part of the collections of the New Bedford,
Nantucket, and Kendall Whaling Museums in
Massachusetts and the
Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
more about whaling antiques.