Sailor’s Valentine

By Lisa Hassler on February 13, 2019

There’s more than just salt in the air on Cape Cod this month. It’s sweeter, makes your heart flutter, and has bewitched us since the dawn of time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we decided to express our love by giving our sweethearts Valentines every February 14th. Some speculate that the first official Valentine was created by British Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe on February 14th, 1779, during the Revolutionary War. Presented to Sally Townsend, one of the daughters in a family whose house he and other British officers were occupying on Long Island, NY, the Valentine featured a passionate poem Simcoe wrote about her. The first two lines implore his beloved:

Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!Alas, it was never meant to be for these star-crossed lovers. Simcoe inevitably went back to England after the war, and Sally never married, living until the age of 82. The Valentine given to her as a young woman was discovered to be among her possessions after her death.

Sally’s Valentine by Mort Künstler

By the dawn of the 19th century Valentines began to be mass-produced, approximately over 200,000 circulated in London alone by the 1820s. Some were simple, others impressingly elaborate, all depending on how much money the admirer wanted to spend.

A Victorian Valentine from 1870

Outside of the big cities, store-bought Valentines were much harder to come by, making lovers more creative with their gift giving. Here on Cape Cod, many of our men went out to sea for months on end, upon merchant ships or whaling vessels, thousands of miles away. Much of that time, one can imagine, they spent feeling homesick and heartsick for their significant others. What thoughtful and unique treasure could they bestow upon their Valentine to reflect the one-of-a-kind love they shared?

The island of Barbados in the Caribbean was an especially busy seaport during the 19th century. While in port, sailors often spent their free time searching for interesting souvenirs to bring home as gifts. An especially popular and completely unique souvenir exclusive to Barbados was what we now call a Sailor’s Valentine. Traditionally octagonal in shape and encased in a wooden glass frame, each Valentine was decorated with beautiful colorful shells glued together in intricate designs. Many featured romantic sayings and designs, making them the perfect Valentine for the men to bring home to their wives. The women of Barbados were the artisans of these stunning creations, and between the 1830s and 1880s, they sold these to English and American sailors with tremendous success.

Original label behind a Sailor’s Valentine from the New Curiosity Shop

Recognizing a lucrative business opportunity, two English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, opened up the wildly popular New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados, where they hired local artists to craft these Valentines, many of which still exist today with their labels on the back.

Some artists even took custom orders, inscribing personalized love notes requested by the sailor, thus coining the term, a “Sailor’s Valentine.”
Today these marvelous creations are incredibly valuable and highly sought after, with collectors appraising them anywhere from $500 to $10,000.00. Contemporary artists have also kept the art form alive by creating their own Sailor’s Valentines. Cape Cod native, Sandy Moran, is probably the most renowned artist who specializes in this craft today. For twenty six years, she has crafted some of the most exquisite and intricate Sailors Valentines, and even teaches courses on how to craft your own. 

One of Sandy Moran’s Sailor’s Valentine

As we race to the supermarket tomorrow to snatch a last-minute Hallmark card and a box of chocolates, it’s hard not to feel a shred of guilt when harkening back a century or two ago when Valentines were not only special, but in this case, literal works of art. Of course a gift of this quality today is well above most of our price ranges, but still, it presses me at least to pause and consider the true meaning and intent of St. Valentine’s Day. We all too often find ourselves in this modern world rushed and unable to be bothered by things so frivolous as a Valentine, but think of the world of difference it would make if you presented your loved one with a gift from the heart. Be it a Sailor’s Valentine or a photo of the two of you glued on pink construction paper, make Valentine’s Day a holiday to cherish and to feel cherished again.