The word Valentine makes many think of February 14, the day people celebrate love and friendship. You will, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that the Sailor’s Valentine has something to do with Valentine’s Day. A Sailors’ Valentine refers to a sentimental treasure that a sailor gave to their loved one in the past upon their return from long sea travels.
The treasure features a hinged wooden box made from Spanish cedar (cerdrella), measuring 8-15 inches wide. The box opens like a book exposing intricate decorative designs such as hearts, flowers, and anchors. The motifs were made using shells of different colors, shapes, and sizes glued onto a surface. Some included photographs, names, initials, or a special message such as ‘Never lose hope,’ ‘My dear mum,’ ‘I’ll never forget you,’ ‘With Love,’ ‘Do not forget me,’ et cetera. A glass pane protects the creation.
The Sailor’s Valentine was a common gift between the 1830s and 1890s. Due to its name, many believe the sailors made the souvenirs with shells they obtained from the sea. However, historians believe that women in Barbados were the brains behind them. They used local shells and those imported from Indonesia to design them.
According to John Fondas, a renowned historian and author, the women would mainly sell the sailor’s Valentines to the New Curiosity Shop, a famous souvenir shop in Bridgetown, Barbados, where sailors would buy them. He backs his theory with the fact that a sailor’s Valentine under repair had pieces of a Barbados newspaper.
Today, most of these sailors’ valentines are in Nantucket, where you may purchase them from craft shops and artifact collectors. Their beauty and uniqueness have inspired their comeback, with many artists creating newer designs. You may find these alongside the old ones.