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Treasures from the Sea: Sailors' Valentines and Shellwork

May 27 - July 23, 2006


(above: Sailor's Valentine, shell, cedar, glass, metal, cotton, wire, ca. 1840. Courtesy of Strong Museum.)


Fascination with sea shells has extended over many centuries. Shells have functioned as money, medicine, and signs of power and prestige. They have inspired scholars, poets, architects, and artists from the earliest times to the current day. Viewed today as rather common objects, colorful shells from distant places were once rarities. The Brandywine River Museum's exhibition Treasures from the Sea: Sailors' Valentines and Shellwork, which opens May 27 and continues through July 23, 2006 surveys the exciting variety and complexity of shellwork produced by 18th and 19th century craftsmen and features many examples of the popular "sailors' valentines."

Shellwork was at the height of fashion during the 18th and 19th centuries and became an appropriate activity for refined and accomplished ladies. With a little guidance and a single application of shells, a novice could transform a nondescript object into a treasure worthy of display in the family parlor.


(above: Sailor's Valentine - "A Present/Think of Me", shell, cedar, glass, metal, cotton, tintype, ca. 1895. Courtesy of Strong Museum.) 


The increasing popularity of shell craft and shell collecting during the 19th century led to the development of the display case. A typical case was fitted with drawers of various depths divided by wooden partitions. Women often used these cases as workboxes for sewing and fancywork. Some cases simply helped organize shells by color and size, but some were beautiful examples of expert carpentry. The most elaborate cases featured drawers which stored shells in interesting patterns. These partitioned cases are likely the antecedent of sailors' valentines.

A sailor's valentine is a collage of colored seashells set within an octagonal wooden frame. Strips of cardboard, covered with colored paper, form partitions in a variety of designs. Shells, carefully glued into position over newspaper or cotton batting, fill the framework. A layer of glass covers the shell panel, protecting it from damage and shifting. The majority of sailors' valentines are composed of two shell panels hinged together, allowing them to be closed (glass side in) for added protection during travel. Hinged valentines are known as "double sailors' valentines," and single panels are referred to as "sailors' valentines."

In the 19th century, sailors' valentines were called "shell mosaics." They acquired their current name from 20th century collectors who believed that sailors had created these objects for loved ones. Collectors may have made this assumption because sailors often spent hours of inactivity making scrimshaw, wool-work embroidery, and knot work (macramé), and returned home bearing these gifts. However, it is unlikely that such intricate shellwork was made on ships. Sailors would not only have needed the materials, but also a space where shellwork could be safely kept. It is unlikely that the quarters of a ship offered such a space.


(above: Sailor's Valentine - "Forget Me Not", shell, cedar, glass, metal, cotton, paper, ca. 1870. Courtesy of Strong Museum.)


It is more likely that a majority of sailors' valentines were made for the souvenir trade by Barbados islanders. The components used in sailors' valentines support this notion because most materials were readily available on the islands. Additionally, the shells most commonly used in sailors' valentines are native to the West Indies. The similarity of their designs also suggests that a majority of sailors' valentines were created in one place rather than on ships that sailed different routes on different seas.

High demand for shellwork eventually led to mass production of poorly designed and manufactured products. By the end of the 19th century, shellwork -- including the sailors' valentine -- was seen as trite and in poor taste. The passage of time, however, has led to renewed interest in the craft. Collectors' demand for sailors' valentines has increased significantly in recent decades, inspiring modern artists to create captivating shellwork.  


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