If you've ever been to Nantucket, you've probably seen sailors' valentines. These intricate shell collages in hardwood boxes—often empty compass boxes—are one example of the island's rich maritime crafts tradition. Nantucket local lore holds whaling crews of the Moby Dick era would spend up to five years at sea, where they would often cross paths with European merchants ships. The merchant crewmen taught whalers the latest European art styles, including 19th-century ladies' parlor arts like collage-making. Whalers began to collect exotic shells, using them to create exquisite and intricate gifts for wives, sweethearts, daughters, and other loved ones back home. Some historians hold a contrary view—that most of these valentines actually originated in Barbados, where women made them with local shells. Either way, they are still a beautiful and romantic part of Nantucket's history.
Antique Sailors' Valentines are available for purchase from the Nantucket Historical Association's Museum Shop, or you can learn to make your own shell art and Sailors' Valentines this summer at the Nantucket Historical Society's 1800 House Classes. For more information on the craft from home, check out Sailors' Valentines: Their Journey Through Time by Grace L. Madeira, or Sailors' Valentines by John Fondas.
Nantucket Historical Association