There is a romantic myth that sailors who were away at sea and missing their sweethearts, wives or daughters, would create these beautiful and colorful tokens of affection while they were passing idle time on long sea voyages. The term Sailor's Valentine and the romantic story behind it, likely originated in coastal New England. However, it is unlikely that many Sailor's Valentines were made by sailors at all. The majority of them originated from the island of Barbados and were made between around 1830 and 1880, with some rare examples dating to the mid-18th century. Examples are also known to have been made in Spain, France and England. There is another myth that the eight-sided frames typical of Sailor's Valentine's originated from an eight sided compass case, however, no example of an eight-sided compass case is known. The first record of an eight-sided Valentine with a proven date is recorded by a sailor named James Creagh, who was stationed in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1829.
One can easily see how the myth of sailors making these valentines evolved in New England. It was a center for the whaling industry, and it was common for sailors to bring back scrimshaw items, which they did in fact make while on long voyages at sea. Scrimshaw objects are carvings created by whalers from the byproducts of harvesting marine mammals, such as whales and walruses. Quite a number of the items that sailors made of whale and walrus ivory were intended gifts for loved ones and include sewing tools, toys and kitchen utensils.
The New Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street in Bridgetown, Barbados, was a popular shop visited by sailors to buy souvenirs during the Victorian Era. It was owned by English brothers B. H. and George Belgrave whose family came to Barbados in the 1750s. Local women from Barbados actually made the Valentines using local shells, as well as shells imported from Indonesia. The finished works were sold in the shop to sailors who were in Barbados while their ships were taking on new supplies and receiving needed repairs, since Barbados was an important mid-way stop along the Triangle Trade Route.
True Sailor's Valentines are eight-sided wooden cases enclosed in protective glass containing a mosaic of various small shells in a variety of colors and shapes As many as 35 different species of Caribbean Shells have been identified. The cases are generally made of locally grown mahogany with the backing of a less costly wood such as pine. The shell designs often contain a compass rose or heart and phrases written in shells such as "Think of Me" or "Home Again". Often they are composed of two octagonal cases hinged together face to face, with a clasp to keep them shut while traveling.
Shell art or shell work, of which Sailor's Valentines are a sub-category, is one of the oldest craft mediums in the history of man. Ancient people living in coastal areas used brightly colored shells to adorn themselves and their homes. The Victorian Era saw this craft elevated to an art form. It became hugely popular with ladies of the time, who would collect shells to be dipped into hot wax and then attached them to all manner of items, including picture frames, glove boxes, vases, furniture etc. Even Queen Victoria was fond of shell art. She was known to have commissioned portraits and gifts for her court favorites. A shell portrait of one of her favorite dogs named King Dick purportedly still hangs at Buckingham Palace.
Sailor's Valentines are very collectible and can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars at auction. In fact they are so popular that there are companies selling very high quality reproductions in New England beach resort communities.