Ever Thine: A Sailor’s Valentine

February 10, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Sailor's Valentine

“Sailor’s Valentine” octagonal shadow box with shells, Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

Despite the name “sailors’ valentines,” these sentimental treasures have nothing to do with February 14th or Valentine’s Day.  Instead, these tokens of love and friendship were given to wives, mothers, sisters, and friends upon a seafarer’s return from a long voyage at sea.

Sailors’ valentines are octagonal wooden boxes often made from Cerdrella (Spanish Cedar) that range in size (when closed) from about 8 to15 inches across. They were made between 1830 and 1880, and are now extremely rare. The box, which opens like a book, reveals an intricate mosaic created mostly from shells. The shells used were in a variety of shapes and colors to create intricate motifs such as hearts, anchors, and flowers, or they could be arranged in complex geometric patterns. The mosaics are protected by a glass pane; when closed these boxes could be easily stored, making them ideal for the voyage home by sailors in the navy or aboard whaling ships.

In addition to being a colorful and decorative souvenir from their travels, these boxes had sentimental motives. Messages were often incorporated into the shell design such as: “To a Friend,” “Think of Me When Far Away,” “Remember Me,” “With Love,” “Forget Me Not,” and “Home Again.” These love tokens could be personalized by including a photograph or even initials or names worked into the shell design. The sailor’s valentine in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection is a fine example of these sentimental objects. With the message “Ever Thine” accompanied by a heart and rose, this valentine was surely sent to someone who was dearly loved.

Further Reading:

  • Fondas, John. Sailors’ Valentines. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2002. pp. 7-12.
  • O’Brien, Tim. “Collectibles, The Sailors Valentine: Sea Shells for Sweethearts…” Victorian Homes, Winter 1984.  pp. 18-19, 91.

 -Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

Entry filed under: Artifacts, Collections. Tags: , , , .

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