Tuesday, February 14, 2012

History: The Work of Hands

It's Saint Valentine’s Day and even a pirate can get a little sentimental on such an occasion. Certainly being away from home on blue water can make a man – or a woman for that matter – yearn for their sweetheart. While loving the one you’re with when away from the one you love has rarely been above even the most upstanding seamen, remembering the girl back home was a common daydream aboard ship. This romantic notion of men pining away for their dear ones has led to some curious fictions, including the stories told about today’s little curios of nautical history.

Items such as that shown at the header are known today as “Sailor’s Valentines”. They has been a revival of this intricate hand work lately, and many fine examples of modern “Valentines” can be found with a quick search of the web. These shell-incrusted trinkets were usually, but not by any means always, octagonal shaped, hinged boxes. They were made of wood and glass that was then encrusted with either dyed or natural colored shells. In many cases, embroidery work was included too as well as sparkling glass beads. In later years, the sailor’s picture might be included.

The prevailing myth was that these impressively delicate keepsakes were made by sailors themselves. Aboard ship for long hours with nothing to do but think of home, sailors would piece together the lovely Valentines for the sweethearts they missed. The work of their own hands thus became the most precious gift, aside from their safe return and undying affection, that they could give.

In fact, as it turns out, the Valentines were only occasionally made by seamen. By the mid-19th century they were almost exclusively made by women native to the Caribbean and particularly the island of Barbados. As Grace L. Madeira points out in her book on the subject, the original shell work items may very well have been done by sailors, but the work was most probably undertaken in port with shells and other trinkets purchased or found while at sea. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, this kind of “small work” became almost exclusively the domain of women. And probably to good effect; there is evidence that the artists of Barbados made a fair wage for their creative efforts.

Anyone who knows anything about working a ship, particularly a sailer, knows that the myth of long periods with nothing to do at sea is just that. There is always something to do, even if it amounts to no more than pumping water or braiding rope. This is not to say that sailors have never been creative or artistic. From some of the shell work mentioned here to beautiful embroidery and carving, sailors have always been good with their hands. But we miss giving credit where it is due if we assume these lovely pieces of art were only made “at sea”.

For more information about or to purchase modern Sailor’s Valentines, allow me to recommend Wendy L. Marshall’s beautiful work; find her here.

Header: Sailor’s Valentine via Historic New England


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Those are beautiful. And it's good to know the truth about them. Happy Valentine's Day, my love!

Pauline said...

They are lovely, and amazingly delicate. We're fortunate to have some of the originals still around today and to have crafts people making modern versions as well. Happy Valentine's Day :)