Handmade sailors’ valentines
As February approaches, it’s easy to think about ROMANCE. For avid collectors of Victorian wares, attention often turns to valentine ephemera. These varied collections overflow with lush roses and sweet sentiments. Highly sought-after items include greeting cards, calling cards and postcards. But beyond these popular desirables, many people regard another piece as a Victorian collectible for this romantic time of year—the sailor’s valentine.
Sailors’ valentines have long stood as the epitome of romantic handmade gifts. There’s nothing more romantic than the thought of heartsick seafarers aboard whaling vessels, spending hours making gifts for their sweethearts across the sea. In truth, these intricate, shell-trimmed boxes were handcrafted by the ladies of Barbados—a tradition that originated on the island in the early to mid-1800s. While ships docked at the isle to trade and to purchase supplies, the sailors visited local shops to buy gifts for loved ones far away.
The original sailors’ valentines came in octagonal-shaped shadow boxes. The designs were created out of hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny seashells.
Designs often included delicate flower and heart-shaped patterns, as well as sweet messages of adoration: “Thinking of you,” “I love you,” “Missing you.” Some people believe that sailors actually made these gifts during long hours, when confined to their quarters aboard whaling ships. Whether they were actually handmade by a sailor or merely purchased by one, each of the shell boxes took part in a historically rich, romantic tradition.
Today, an antique sailor’s valentine can be expensive to acquire. If you love the idea and bear an affinity for seashells, consider collecting a less-expensive alternative: the classic souvenir seashell trinket box. Trinket boxes date back to the 1920s and are still produced today. These adorable little collectibles appear at garage sales, flea markets and thrift shops. They come in many shapes and sizes, allowing for interesting collections and displays. And vintage boxes are not even the only type of collectable shell craft. Shell-encrusted bottles and vases, exquisitely detailed floral bouquets and clamshell treasure chests all await the Victorian-era enthusiast.
Sailors’ valentines are beautiful pieces of handcrafted art, exotic and brilliantly creative. With fine details and impeccable craftsman-ship, it’s no wonder these amazingly delicate pieces are so cherished and equally pricey. Collecting their distant cousin, the souvenir shell trinket box, pays homage to the history of the sailor’s valentine while enjoying the pursuit of an achievable and whimsical collection.
Tips for display
Seashells have a wonderfully neutral palette. This makes them easy to introduce into many collections and displays. They can be used to decorate bookcases, tucked into china cabinets or even lined up in a row on a shelf.
To create a romantic Valentine’s Day vignette, pepper a few seashell collectibles throughout an existing collection of glassware, ironstone or transferware.
This display can grace a cabinet or make lovely table- top decor. Next, add a few vintage Valentine’s Day cards or other wonderfully romantic pieces of ephemera, and voila! Romance!
Left: The soft colors and delightful images found on vintage valentines make a nice companion to any display. The delicate paper is a perfect contrast to the textures of the natural shells and antique china.
Tips for Collecting
1. Souvenir shell collectibles can often be found in thrift shops, at yard sales and at flea markets. The price range varies greatly, depending on the age, type of shells and design.
2. Look for pieces that have few-to-no missing or broken shells. Repair any loose shells you find with a gentle hand and a small drop of E6000 glue. Use a toothpick for better accuracy in glue placement.
3. Don’t forget about online resources. Do an Internet search for shell boxes and let the hunt begin!
4. Collecting should be fun and not break the bank. It’s not only the thrill of the hunt, but also the reward of the display.
Vintage seashell arts and crafts do not have to remain close to the sea: beach-inspired decor isn’t just for beachfront homes. Souvenirs were meant to come home with you as reminders of warm, sunny days filled with fun adventures. These charming collectibles are nothing short of delightful, no matter where you live.
Tiny treasures make more impact when properly showcased. Nestle a small box into a larger shell for support. Then add one tiny detail, like this small starfish, to accent the precious little heart-shaped box.
How to Make Your Own Trinket Box
Assortment of small seashells Hot glue gun or E6000 glue
1. Place the lid on the box and draw a line around the base of the box showing how far down the lid sits when the box is closed. The shells on the base cannot go above this line.
2. Glue a piece of felt to the bottom of the box.
3. Set the box on a protected flat surface. Start gluing shells around the base of the box, making sure no shells prevent the box from sitting evenly.
4. Continue to cover the box with shells, working up to the line previously drawn.
5. Next, cover the top of the box with shells. It is a good idea to create a border along the bottom edge with shells that are all of the same variety.
6. Take inspiration from sailors’ valentines and try to create a pattern on the top of the box: spell the word “love” in shells, or create a flower.
1. Use a feather duster or gently blow off dust with a hair dryer set on low cool.
2. A clean, soft toothbrush can be used to remove debris between shells. Be very careful not to brush and loosen the shells.
3. Dip a Q-tip into a small amount of soap and water. Dab excess water onto a paper towel. Gently rub the dirt from any soiled shells. Be careful not to get the shell or the box too wet, as this could damage the brittle glue.