A Sailor’s Souvenir: The Fascinating History of the Shellwork Designs

A 19th Century Sailor’s Valentine from Barbados
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Today we are looking at a fascinating example of decorative arts that has its origins in Barbados and subsequently travelled worldwide thanks to sailors bringing them far and wide.

Sailor’s valentines are a specific type of shellwork incorporating geometric mosaics of shells within octagonal wooden boxes.  The designs often featured hearts, flowers, and a compass rose and required dozens of different types of shells to create the intricate patterns.  

A 19th Century Sailor’s Valentine from Barbados
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

These fascinating specimens date from the late 18th and 19th centuries and were often made in Barbados, which was an important port for North Atlantic ships and would have been one of the final stops before reaching home.  Sailors would often acquire these shell specimens as a souvenir to give to loved ones.  

Today sailor’s valentines are treasured by collectors who appreciate their incredible detail, history, and story.

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