Traditional Sailors’ Valentines were made in octagonal wooden boxes (usually mahogany) and often had two sides that were hinged and closed with a heart-shaped lock. They were created by gluing hundreds of tiny shells in mosaic patterns to a cotton backing; they typically included flowers, hearts, and star shapes; and they frequently contained sentimental messages.
Folklore tells us that Sailors’ Valentines were the work of homesick sailors passing time while on long sea journeys, brought home as gifts for loved ones. Though some may have been the work of sailors, characteristics common to the majority of Valentines indicate they were made by craftspeople in Barbados between 1830 and 1880 and bought as souvenirs by American, British, and Dutch sailors for whom the island was a final port of call.
In 2002, the first book on Sailors’ Valentines was published. Written by John Fondas, it featured many of the original Barbadian pieces. In 2006, a second book on more contemporary Sailors’ Valentine artists and collectors was co-authored by a group of women from the Philadelphia area who had met for years to share their love of the sea and fascination with shells. In 2016, I authored a book that features the work of eighteen of today’s finest artists.