The story of the Sailors' Valentine begins in the early ninteenth century, when it was customary for sailors, after returning home from long voyages at sea, to come bearing sentimental gifts for wives, sweethearts, daughters and mothers. Sailors' Valentines, known in their day simply as "shell mosaics," were among the most common gifts.
In Private Collection
In particular, the island of Barbados (often a vessel's last port-of-call before returning to America) was a source of great many early Sailors' Valentines. As a major center of trade in the nineteenth century, Barbados typically swarmed with American, English and Dutch sailors, all looking for ways to spend their wages during their precious few hours on land. Many early Sailors' Valentines surviving today carry messages such as "A Gift from Barbados," and a rare few even bear the original Barbadian shopkeeper's label pasted on the back of the wooden case.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Sailors' Valentines were no longer being produced in great quantities in the West Indies or anywhere else. In the 1830s, collecting of these now antique momentos of the sea became popular, and the name Sailors' Valentines was adopted. Since that time, the intrigue of the octogonal shell mosaics has grown immensely. Today, after a silence of nearly a century, the once-lost art form is being resurrected by a handful of Sailors' Valentines craftsmen.