The first sailor’s valentine I ever saw was on Nantucket. It was impossibly delicate and sweetly beautiful. The little plaque below it explained that these wondrous tokens of affection were brought back by sailors during the nineteenth century after months, if not years, at sea. I imagined lovesick men beach combing in the early morning hours for just the right shells, evenings spent by candlelight carefully sewing these tiny perfections to cotton backing and then carefully constructing the octagonal wooden box in which it was encased and then somehow finding the perfect heart shaped clasp to seal and protect their love on its journey home to someone special.
Well, leave it to a practical New Englander to put an end to all this wishful romance. While restoring an early 1800s sailor’s valentine from Massachusetts, a small clipping from the newspaper The Barbadian was discovered in the backing. The clipping disclosed that these lovely items could be found for sale at Belgrave’s New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados. Owned by Englishmen and brothers Benjamin Hinds and George Belgrave The New Curiosity Shop located on MacGregor Street in Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies was the place to find sailor’s valentines.
Barbados was a lively port and trade center during the 18th and 19th centuries. Whalers and seamen would frequent the town, often as a last port of call, looking for souvenirs to bring home to their sweethearts. The Belgrave brothers had local women craft the valentines, sometimes customizing them with special phrases as the sailors wished. These works of art crossed the sea funding their way to New England where many of them can still be found today. As the whaling industry waned in the mid 1800s so too did the demand for sailor’s valentines. The Curiosity Shop closed its doors in 1880.
A true sailors valentine is said to include a flower design, a heart, a nautical symbol, and a special verse or message. All in an octagonal box with a hinged lid and glass to protect these painstakingly crafted works of art. Antique sailor’s valentines can be found at The Nantucket Whaling Museum, which has an extensive collection, and the Falmouth Museum on the Green which currently has two. But better yet, why not make your own? The Essex Shipbuilding Museum in conjunction with The Essex Arts Collective is hosting a sailor’s valentine workshop on February 12 from 6-8pm. No time at sea required.
Make Your Own Sailor’s Valentine
Essex Shipbuilding Museum
Wednesday, February 12
6 – 8 p.m. | $45