Monday, February 8, 2016

Valentines from Across the Seas

QUESTION: While vacationing in Nantucket last summer, I came across some beautiful souvenirs made of shells. The shop owner said they’re called “Sailor’s Valentines.” While the one I purchased is newly made, I saw others in the Nantucket Whaling Museum a few blocks away. What is the history behind these things of beauty? Who made them and where did they come from?

ANSWER: Most sailor’s valentines date from the early 19th century. Beginning in 1830, whaling ships set sail from Nantucket and later New Bedford, Massachusetts in search of mighty whales, from which they extracted whale oil used to grease the machines of the Industrial Revolution.

While Nantucket was the center of whaling in New England–at its height nearly 400 ships called the island port home—these weren’t the only types of ships that sailed the oceans of the world. Sailing ships, later known as clippers because of their fast speed, sailed to all the major ports of the world. From the early to the latter part of the 19th century when steam-powered ships took over the seas, the sailors aboard them spent years aboard in search of whales and moving cargo from one port of call to the next, often gone from home for several years. 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 in shops on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.

Between about 1830 and 1880, residents of Barbados made and sold what came to be known as Sailor’s Valentines to the lonely English and American sailors.

From the 1630s to the end of the 19th century, Barbados was an important port of call for sugar, rum, lumber, and fish. Because of this, a number of shops catered to the souvenir trade. The Victorian love for collecting and displaying exotic objects from afar possibly fueled the industry and contributed to the popularity of the valentines.

Historians believe that most of the sailors' valentines came from the New Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street in Bridgetown, Barbados, owned by two English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, who hired locals to make the valentines.

The local valentine makers constructed the special octagonal, hinged boxes, ranging in size from 8 to 15
inches across, using mahogany veneer for the sides and native cedar wood called cedrella, for the bottoms. Then they lined the insides of the boxes with colored paper, most often pink, onto which they placed cotton batting. Next they glued hundreds of colorful tiny seashells in intricate symmetrical mosaic designs incorporating hearts and flowers, which often featured a compass rose centerpiece. After gluing down all the shells, the maker placed a piece of glass over the design to protect them. They called these double valentines.

Sometimes the makers incorporated a special sentimental message that a sailor would request into the design, thus the name Sailors’ Valentines. Sentiments typically appeared only on the smaller 9½-inch double valentines, which often displayed a heart motif on the opposite half. Some of the more popular ones were “To My Sweetheart,” “To My Love,” “Home Again,” and “From a Friend.” The larger 13½- to 14-inch valentines rarely had sayings, but instead had more intricate shell-work designs on both sides.

Today, Sailors’ Valentines command high prices at auctions and antique shows. Some of the best, however, are part of the collections of the New Bedford and Nantucket Whaling Museums, and the Peabody Essex Museum, all in Massachusetts. Collectors value antique sailors' valentines for their beauty and unusual qualities. But their high prices make it difficult for most beginning collectors to acquire the originals. A small double valentine that twenty years ago sold for $350 to $600, now sells for $500 to $1,500, and the price for a large double valentine has jumped from $1,000 to between $2,500 and $10,000—that is if either can be found.

Plus, a thriving business making new sailors’ valentines has emerged on Nantucket Many of these have frames that have been faux finished to imitate the original woods and their designs copied to imitate the originals. Beyond the souvenir shops, collectors must be vigilant because many of these imitations have been sold as antiques.

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