Sailor's Valentine

by Dr. Lori Verderame

A most collectible craft of the early seafaring tradition is an item consisting of decorative seashells called a sailor’s valentine. Created by the creative whimsy of sailors, a sailor’s valentine is a framed decorative picture of small seashells collected from beaches worldwide. First made on whaling ships by sailors, sailor’s valentines are made with found materials. Sailors would collect seashells and other natural items while traveling on the high seas. These sailor’s valentines feature shells and messages written into the framework of the keepsake.

What to Look For

Sailor's Valentine

Sailor’s valentines started with a square or octagonal wooden frame or box. Inside these frames or boxes, sailors would place decorative shells in repeated and recurring patterns. Collected from various ports of call, the variety of the seashells in the sailor’s valentine would not only reveal the places where the sailor-artist had traveled but also spell out a message of love to his lover waiting upon his arrival home after a long journey at sea. The craft project helped the sailor pass the time while at sea. Long days and nights sailing the seas gave the sailor ample time to design and complete the project which required amassing and collecting the shells as well as designing the valentine’s design.

Sailor's Valentine

A sailor’s valentine was most typically a hinged octagonal box decorated with many shells delicately positioned within the box to create a pretty design and to spell out words of love or phrases like “be mine” or “i love you”. A loved one’s name or a love poem would be spelled out in colorful and interesting seashells including cowrie shells, scallop shells and sea creatures like starfish, etc. The valentine was not only a love symbol and keepsake but also a collection of natural objects or curios from far off lands.

Sailor’s valentines are among the rarest and most coveted seafaring collectibles on today’s antiques market. These highly desirable keepsakes are pretty pricey in today’s antiques marketplace.

Get an online appraisal of your sailor’s valentine from Dr. Lori