Have you heard the term Sailor’s Valentines and wondered who and what this was? Interesting enough, this is a term that modern-day collectors assigned to what they thought sailors created during their free time. After doing some investigating, it was discovered that the sailors really did not make them, but purchased them for loved ones stateside.
This beautiful and interesting form of folk art came into being during the late 19th and early 20th century. Hundreds of tiny seashells were glued onto a cotton backing. Each type of shell was then separated by a partition. Designs were colorful and creative. Many had a message, such as “Thinking of You”, “Forget Me Not” and “Home Again” written on the shells.
Through research and examination, they found that most of the shells came from the same West Indies Island, with similar designs and workmanship. They also concluded the island of Barbados was often the last port for many whalers, English, and Dutch traders. Barbados is located to the east of the West Indies Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. So perhaps those sailors did buy these for souvenirs to take home. They also found that these early turn of the century examples stopped during the time when whaling stopped and steamships came into fashion.
In the late 1930’s, these folk art shells were rediscovered in attics and collectors begin to see them as beautiful works of art. From very simple designs to large ornate pieces we still enjoy them from the past as a piece of the “sea”. When you picture a rough and strong sailor, the last thing you think they would purchase is something so delicate, but the men longed for their homes and loved ones and this was a way to show their women how much they missed them.
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