An Octagon of Shells
Imagine a “painting” that is made entirely of multi-colored seashells. Sailors’ valentines are more like mosaics but instead of tiny pieces of glass, the visual display is made from hundreds and sometimes thousands of small shells. Some are not much bigger than the head of a pin.
These works of art have little to do with Valentine’s Day. The original sailors’ valentines consisted of two octagonal-shaped wooden boxes that were hinged together. These boxes were reminiscent of the hinged cases containing the ship’s navigational instruments, especially the compass.
The sailors’ valentines opened like a book, exposing the intricate and colorful shell designs that incorporated hearts, anchors, and flowers displayed in geometric patterns. They often included sentimental messages such as “Forget Me Not,” Remember Me,” or “With Love.” The Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection, in Washington, DC, has examples of these sentimental objects.
The heyday of sailors’ valentines stretched from 1830 to 1890. Sailors, who often were away from home for months and even years at a time, brought them home from a voyage and gave them to their loved one or loved ones. Today, originals are rare, considered collectables, and are quite pricey.
Barbados played a huge role in the success of sailors’ valentines. Two English brothers—BH and George Belgrave—owned a shop in Bridgetown called Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop. They organized local women to create designs using shells that either were indigenous to Barbados or imported from Indonesia.
Sailing ships often landed in Barbados as their last stop before returning to America, England, or elsewhere. The brothers sold the valentines to sailors looking for souvenirs to take home.
Artists who create sailors’ valentines hail from all over the world. Two of the most creative and award-winning are Sussex County locals. Connie Miller is a Lewes resident and Julia Smith lives in what was the old Milton post office. They have studios in their homes.
Miller saw her first sailor’s valentine in 1986 in Sanibel, Florida, where her parents vacationed. Her father scoped out local shows so she could display her wares. “For 15 years my parents took my work all around the west coast of Florida while I was still working,” she said. Her father was a Delaware River pilot and they sailed together for 45 years.
She was an art teacher at the Rehoboth and Milton Elementary Schools and Cape Henlopen High School before retiring. She attended the University of Delaware as did Smith who majored in sculpture and metal smithing. She has an MFA from Washington University in St Louis.
“Creating a sailor’s valentine can take hundreds of hours depending on how detailed or elaborate they are,” says Smith. Miller spends the better part of each day—from about 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.—in her studio and she says it can take her up to three months to make a 20-inch valentine. The shells are adhered to the flat part of the box with a variety of glues that can be purchased at art supply stores like Michael’s.
According to Miller, traditional valentines are those made in the 1800s. Contemporary valentines are those made in more recent times. She is a collaborator on a book called Sailors’ Valentines: Their Journey Through Time that goes into great detail about the art objects.
Both women were raised in beach loving, sailing families. Both exhibit in shows that feature sailors’ valentines and both have been honored for their work at the now defunct Philadelphia Shell Show. Miller won first prize for a valentine and Smith won the blue ribbon for a shell picture of a fish, a non-valentine. “We both took home a Best in Show plaque,” she said.
Shows primarily are sponsored by regional shell clubs which fluctuate with membership and enthusiasm, according to Smith. She says that Florida clubs are still quite active and North Carolina has a thriving club at present.
“Sanibel is the shell capital in the US,” added Miller. “They have a shell show although they are rebuilding after the devastating hurricane,” she added. Miller is attending the 2024 show in March.
Traditional valentines are in high demand by collectors. A small double valentine that 20 years ago sold for $350 to $600 now can cost $3,500 to $8,500. Depending on the size, some can fetch between $8,500 and $18,000, particularly the larger double valentines, according to the web site incollect.com
Contemporary valentines, such as those made by Miller, also can cost several thousand dollars. But mass-produced versions, such as those carried at souvenir shops, are much less.
“It’s not an inexpensive endeavor but the results are beautiful treasures to be handed down. I loved them from the first one I ever saw,” said Smith. “When design decisions are made, and the tweezer-assisted assembly takes over, it is a very meditative pursuit for those of us inclined to that sort of work. It’s not for everybody, but it’s my harmony with the universe.”
Miller and Smith make valentines of various sizes, and most are single octagonal boxes. They rely on various sources for the shells. Miller has created large scale signs for various residential communities including The Tides, Captiva Sands, and Oyster Bay.
According to Smith, Martha Stewart devoted a lot of attention to the valentines about 15 years ago, which spurred massive interest and sales. “People from all over the world collect sailors’ valentines and our competitions in the states attract competitors from Canada and Japan lately as well as people from all our coastal regions,” she said.
Smith’s web site is juliaallensmith.com. Miller does not have a site.
The Delaware Seashore State Park just below Dewey Beach at Indian River has offered lessons on how to make a sailor’s valentine. The most recent class was held in December. Contact the park for information on any upcoming classes. ▼
Pictured: opposite page, Connie Miller; left, Julia Smith. Photos by Mary Jo Tarallo. Photos of valentines and fish by Julia Smith.
Mary Jo Tarallo is a former journalist and public relations professional for various non-profits including a ski industry trade association. She won a Gold Award for a United Way TV program starring Oprah Winfrey.