A Sailor’s Valentine

Sailor’s Valentines on Cape Cod

By Pat O’Connell

Sailing Sky High
“Sailing Sky High” by Martha Cahoon.

Many folks believe that Sailor’s Valentines were created by sailing men aboard ships. It’s thought that the sailors used the projects to wile away the time at sea. However, when one stops to think about a sailor’s life, that thought just doesn’t make sense for a number or reasons.

First, can you imagine doing such intricate work aboard a ship while it is pitching and rolling? Second, there were not many idle moments aboard merchant or whaling ship. The crew was either working, eating or sleeping. And third, space was at a premium aboard those ships. There just wasn’t much room for storing personal items.

This is a Sailor’s Valentine that is on display at the Falmouth Museums on the Green.
This is a Sailor’s Valentine that is on display at the Falmouth Museums on the Green.

A Sailor’s Valentine is Intricate Sea Shell Art

They were created as a sentimental or souvenir gift. They use large numbers of small varied colored seashells that are glued into intricately symmetrical designs. The original Sailor’s Valentines were made between 1830 and 1890. They were created to be taken home as a memento of a sailor’s voyage at sea and given to his loved ones.  Most often, they are octagonal designs and were usually between 8 to 20 inches wide. Seashells are glued into place then mounted in a hinged wooden box. The patterns often featured a centerpiece such as a heart shape or a compass rose. In some instances the shells were used to spell out a sentimental message or a motto.

Sailor's Valentine in the Palmer House's James Fenimore Cooper room
Sailor’s Valentine in the Palmer House’s James Fenimore Cooper room.
Sailor's Valentine
Palmer House lnn’s Sailor’s Valentine.

Many of the Sailor’s Valentines were produced in the island of Barbados. This island was an important seaport during the age of sail. It’s believed that women on Barbados made the valentines using local seashells. It’s also  believed that some of the shells were imported from Indonesia. The finished product was then sold to sailors as souvenirs.

John Fondas, author of “Sailors Valentines” states that the most common source for Sailor’s Valentines was the “New Curiosity Shop”  that was located on MacGregor Street in Brighton, Barbados.  It was a popular shop where sailors liked to purchase souvenirs. It was owned by B.H. and George Belgrave who were brothers. John Fondas tells about a Sailors Valentine that was being repaired. During the job a Barbados newspaper was found inside the backing material.

Today the original Sailor’s Valentines are collectible and are valued for their color, beauty and unique qualities. Collectors have sparked interest in this unique art form. Sailor’s Valentine kits can now be purchased in craft shops and online.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum has an extensive collection of the antique Sailor’s Valentines, in addition, our own Falmouth Museums on the Green also has two excellent examples of antique sailors valentines in the Doctor Francis Wick’s House. The valentines were brought to Falmouth by some of Falmouth’s sailors many years ago.

If you are interested in creating a Sailor’s Valentine of your own. Susan Black, a native of Nantucket, has kits that can be purchased online. Each kit includes an octagonal wooden box with a hinged glass front and a collection of seashells from around the world. website

We hope you have a romantic Valentine’s Day.


Carved mahogany four poster bed in the Roosevelt Room.
Carved mahogany four poster bed in the Roosevelt Room.
Cape Cod's Emily Dickinson Room Five
Emily Dickinson Room

While all of our guestrooms have their own charm suitable for relaxation after the most wonderful day of artistic adventures on Cape Cod’s, we recommend the Harriet Beecher Stowe room, the Theodore Roosevelt room or the Emily Dickinson room. These rooms feature comfortable king beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi-style tubs and a relaxing stay before and after your day.