A homesick sailor searches the horizon for the Maine coast. Standing on the deck of a schooner that has carried his crew to the West Indies to trade dried fish for molasses, he looks down at the octagonal, wooden frame in his hands. Sea spray forms salt crust on the glass, obscuring the intricate shell mosaic beneath.
There is a saying: Distance makes the heart grow fonder. The seafaring men in the 1800s searched for ways to express their affection to those they left at home. One popular gift was the sailor’s valentine, symmetrical shell artwork crafted by Barbados natives between 1830 and 1880 and sold to English and American sailors to take back to their loved ones.
The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport is bringing the tradition back to life and is scheduled to offer a sailor’s valentine workshop for adults on Saturday, Feb. 12, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“This is a part of maritime history,” said Betty Schopmeyer, education director at Penobscot Marine Museum. “The truth is that sailor’s valentines had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day whatsoever. They were probably termed that later because they were given as tokens of affection.”
Traditionally, the seashell mosaics often included a message or photograph and were framed in octagonal boxes made of Spanish cedar. Glass was placed over the design to protect the delicate shells.
“They weren’t random at all,” said Schopmeyer. “They’re very patterned and very symmetrical.”
Distinct designs were created through a variety of shell color and shape.
For artists who craft sailor’s valentines today, rose cup shells are popular for forming flower shapes. Long, white bullia shells add geometric lines. Pearly trochus snails shine as they weave through dove shells, striped like tigers. And the undersides of clamshells add a splash of purple in contrast to the orange periwinkle and red nerites.
“We will provide lots and lots of different types of shells that I’ve ordered online,” said Schopmeyer.
Sailor’s valentines from the 1800s are coveted by collectors and go for high prices at auction.
An original, double-sided sailor’s valentine was donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum by Mrs. Fred Hodgkins in 1968, and is reported to have come from Bermuda. The beautiful relic is hinged and opens like a book.
“You think of our boys back then that traveled the world, but were still thinking of people back here in Maine – it’s a good Valentines Day story,” said Penobscot Marine Museum Curator and Collections Manager Cipperly Good, who plans to tell historical stories during the workshop.
“There are a number of nice stories about sea captains and their wives, and we have some romantic historical things such as wedding dresses and lockets that we’re going to show,” said Schopmeyer.
In Good’s stories, the sailors are struggling to answer one question: “What’s the way to win the girl’s heart? Do you bring her clothes, chocolate or name a ship after her?”
In the 1800s, New England ships traveled to the West Indies with lumber, fish and manufactured goods to trade for rum, molasses and sugar, according to Schopmeyer. Barbados is the easternmost island of the Caribbean – a good place to restock provisions before heading home. There, Maine sailors would have traded for gifts such as sailor’s valentines.
Though the designs are meant to be intricate, Schopmeyer says that even 5-year-olds can have fun making a sailor’s valentine. Last week, two museum educators took the Maine Sea Coast Missions boat, the Sunbeam, to three small island schools in Penobscot Bay to teach students how to craft the shell mosaics on octagonal paper plates.
For the museum’s first adult workshop, they purchased black 10-by-10-inch frames and octagonal mats for the backing of the design. The registration cost of $40 covers all materials. People are invited to bring a photograph to incorporate into the center of the valentine, as sailors once did. To create a more contemporary valentine, mementos can be added to the seashells.
There are currently a few slots left in the workshop, but they’re limited to 20 people. If enough people are interested, they will keep names on a waiting list and consider scheduling a second workshop a few weeks after the first.
The Penobscot Marine Museum is closed from the third week of October to Memorial Day. For information on their winter workshops, call 548-2529. For those who can’t make a workshop but are interested in the tradition, visit www.sailorsvalentines.com. Maine-made sailor’s valentines in the traditional style can be viewed and purchased at www.sailorvalentinesofmaine.com.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the phone number.