During the mid 19th century, men spent years aboard sailing ships in search of whales and moving cargo from one port of call to the next. 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 on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.

Between about 1830 and 1880, enterprising residents of Barbados made and sold what have come to be known as Sailor’s Valentines to the lonely sailors, many of whom had sailed out of their home ports of New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts, the center of the whaling trade.

They constructed the special hinged valentine boxes, ranging in size from 8 to 15 inches across, of native cedar wood called cedrella, then they filled them with hundreds of colorful tiny seashells in intricate symmetrical mosaic designs incorporating hearts and flowers, which often featured a compass rose centerpiece. Sometimes they included a special sentimental message that the sailor would order, thus the name Sailor’s Valentine. After gluing down all the shells, the maker placed a piece of glass over the design to protect them.

Collectors of nautical and whaling memorabilia command high prices at auctions throughout the country, especially in Massachusetts. Some of the best, however, are part of the collections of the New Bedford, Nantucket, and Kendall Whaling Museums in Massachusetts and the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

Bob Brooke