If it’s true that sailors have one in every port, then an awful lot of young ladies will be looking forward to next Tuesday with high expectation. If you need reminding, it’s Valentine’s Day and woe betide the lover who fails to send a token of affection to the one who is loved.
Tradition has it that February 14 is the day on which the birds choose their mates. Folklore also decrees that if a maiden sees a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day, she will marry a sailor, so she might well be the recipient of of one of the love tokens illustrated here.
These intricate boxed collections of gorgeous South Sea shells, each one delicately arranged in symmetrical patterns, were crafted by lovestruck sailors during the long months away from home and apart from their sweethearts.
Sorry, that’s another myth.
Valentine’s Day has always been big business, a walk down any High Street will prove the point. Shops are crammed with cards, trinkets, jewellery and other fripperies, in both good taste and bad, all designed to separate the gullible from their cash.
These so-called “sailor’s shell Valentines” are the 19th century equivalent, except that they are extraordinarily attractive, desirable and highly collected. They’re also expensive these days with some of the finest fetching £8,000-10,000. But they weren’t made by sailors.
Many wrongly assert that shell Valentines were made by lonely tars on board ship during their free time. Instead, their manufacture was a cottage industry in Barbados and the West Indies in the 1800s when islanders hit on the idea of turning the shells that abounded on their coasts into souvenirs for travellers.
In their day, these eye-catching trinkets were simply collections of colourful shells, but over time the entrepreneurial islanders realised that by including romantic messages and pink shell heart motifs, they were turned into love tokens.
Shells were arranged to spell out sentiments such as “Forget Me Not”; “When This You See, Remember Me” and “Forever and Ever”, although others simply declare themselves “A Gift from Barbados”.
Their construction is broadly similar. The intricate decorations of literally thousands of the tiny shells were protected by sheet of glass and set into shallow octagonal mahogany boxes acting as a frame. The box resembles the cases in which a ship’s compass would be kept.
They were sold separately, or hinged together to form a closed box. These so-called double Valentines are among the most desirable. They were made so that when closed, the shells were protected from the light and have thus retained their vibrant colours. Single examples in contrast have over the years been bleached by exposure to ultraviolet rays which can have a serious effect on their value.
The appearance of these shells designs coincided with a period in the early 19th century when European collectors became fascinated by the natural sciences. It was a time when Victorian sitting rooms were decorated with glass cases containing butterflies, stuffed birds and fossils and the shells, in their ready-made display cases, the Valentines were a perfect addition.
At this time Barbados was a regular stopping point for whalers and trading vessels which stopped there to take on supplies or to deliver cargo. With an eye on the main chance, sailors and possibly even their captains would have either collected shells for themselves or bought them from the islanders to sell on once they had returned home.
The exotic seashells would have been well received by the growing middle classes and soon it became an amusing pastime, particularly among the ladies, to arrange them into elegant floral découpage to be shown off under glass domes or hung on the wall.
Good sailor’s Valentines have become increasingly rare. Average examples can be had for £600-800, but exceptional examples can be 10 times that amount. Vibrant colours and attractive arrangements are the most sought after and beware double Valentines that have become separated. Holes in the outer case where hinges would have been fastened are a tell-tale sign.
It is also difficult to be certain that you’re buying something old. Whilst I am not aware that the things are being faked, very many sailor’s Valentines are younger than they appear. Close examination of the wood helps to a degree, and modern adhesives are easy to spot. As always, buy from reputable sources … and give with love.
Pictures show, top: One half of a double Valentine, this Victorian example was clearly intended as a love token because of the heart-shaped motif at its centre
Below, left to right: The wooden cases of sailor’s Valentines make natural frames for the display and also served to protect the shells during the long distances they travelled. They also protect the delicate shells from the effects of light. This example is worth £3,000-5,000
This geometric design is made up of tiny snail shells. It dates from the late 19th century and was probably intended as a natural history specimen
Larger exotic shells are a feature of this design, made more desirable because it is a double Valentine. It’s worth £4,000-6,000