A Sailor’s Valentine
Ah Valentine’s Day! A festival of romantic love celebrated on 14 February, notoriously involving giving gifts of love to that special someone. But for sailors of old who were often out to sea for long periods of time, giving a gift on that day could be quite difficult. So clever seafarers created a special present known as a Sailor's Valentine that would illustrate the extent of their love.
Sailor’s Valentines were considered a labour of love. They contained an intricate display of symmetrical designs composed entirely of sea shells supposedly collected by the sailor during their travels. Patterns often featured a centrepiece such as a compass rose, a heart design, or a special message. It typically came in an octagonal, hinged wooden box covered in glass and they often took months to complete.
As romantic as this sounds—a lonely sailor spending months at sea painstakingly assembling his shell collection into a work of art for their lover—the more likely explanation for a Sailor’s Valentine comes from the West Indian island of Barbados.
Historians believe that between 1830 to 1880, sailors would come into Barbados looking for unique souvenirs for their loved ones. Industrious Barbadian women seized the opportunity and made the Valentines using local shells. When the sailor finally returned home they would then present their loved one with these mosaic professions of undying love.
Whether they were created by the sailors themselves or bought as a gift, a Sailor’s Valentine is undoubtedly an incredibly beautiful work of art and a worthy expression of romantic love no matter what day it’s presented on. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Image courtesy of The Antiques Almanac.