With their dense arrangements of exotic shells, such as keyhole limpets and King Venus clams, and elaborately painted wooden covers, the Maine Maritime Museum’s sailors’ valentines are fine examples of the genre.
Meticulously crafted sailors’ valentines reveal 19th-century mariners’ romantic side.
By John Bottero
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
Regular readers of this column have heard me praise the work of Victorian-era mariners, many of whom produced elegant scrimshaw, macramé, and inlays during idle hours at sea. Given their varied talents, it follows that historians would initially assume the seamen also assembled the intricate shell mosaics — known as “sailors’ valentines” — they brought home for their sweethearts at a time when a shell-collecting craze, known as “conchylomania,” was sweeping the nation.
As it happens, these navigators and crafters were also discerning consumers. Most sailors’ valentines came from the New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados — a hub for New England whaling ships in the 19th century. Owned by a pair of English brothers, the shop billed itself as a purveyor of “marine specimens” and “fancy work” produced by native artisans, many of them exceptionally skilled. Mariners stopping for provisions or making ship repairs during the final leg of a multi-year voyage would purchase or barter for the valentines and return home with them as souvenirs.
The most common sailors’ valentines are octagonal, hinged wooden boxes that open to reveal a double-sided, geometric collage of hundreds of exotic shells arrayed behind glass. Many incorporate hearts, flowers, stars, or nautical symbols, such as anchors; some bear messages like “Forget Me Not” or “To My Sweetheart.” Works inspired by the Victorian originals are still made by talented artisans, fetching a few hundred to a few thousand dollars apiece. But the valentines sailors selected for their loved ones often bring in upwards of $5,000 in reputable shops and auctions.
Visit the Maine Maritime Museum to see these and other nautical souvenirs, as well as exhibits on maritime heritage, including The Frozen Kingdom: Commerce & Pleasure in the Maine Winter, on view through April 26. 243 Washington St., Bath. 207-443-1316. mainemaritimemuseum.org
John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.