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Love Letters From The Sea

The 19th-century art of sailors’ valentines is experiencing a resurgence

Gigi Smithers and Florence Hastings proudly display their works of art.

Gigi Smithers and Florence Hastings proudly display their works of art.

It’s a sun-kissed November morning and Constance Marshall Miller of Lewes, Delaware, is conducting a three-day workshop in Vero Beach. Sitting around tables strewn with books, wood boxes and jars of shells are eight women, all eager to learn from Miller’s 31 years of crafting shell-related art. A former teacher and an accomplished artist, she has come here to teach one craft in particular: the Sailors’ Valentine.

Created in the 19th century as souvenirs for lovelorn sailors to take home to their sweethearts, Sailors’ Valentines were fashioned from octagonal shadow boxes of mahogany and Spanish cedar inlaid with an intricate pattern of shells. The designs often featured hundreds and sometimes thousands of tiny seashells shaped into flowers and hearts, along with messages of endearment. “Forget Me Not,” “To My Sweetheart” and “Home Again at Last” all imparted the sailors’ abiding devotion to their loved ones during the long, lonely months at sea.

Sailors’ Valentines were first thought to be the work of the sailors themselves, but research has shown that these beautiful collaborations of art and nature were actually crafted by the women of the Caribbean island of Barbados, an important seaport in the West Indies archipelago where American whalers, as well as British and Dutch traders, made their last port of call before returning home.

The story goes that Benjamin Hinds Belgrave and his brother George migrated to Barbados from England in 1830, bringing with them the Victorians’ love of ornamental shell work. Hiring local women to turn the island’s indigenous seashells into keepsakes, the brothers opened the Old Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street and a cottage industry was born.