Arts of the Sailor: Sailors’ Valentine

February 10, 2018

1 pm to 3 pm 

Cost: Included with Museum Admission

To register: Please call 902-424-7491 or e-mail:

Legend has it that the beautiful pieces of shell mosaic art known as Sailor’s Valentines were made by bored and lonely sailors to pass the time while at sea. However, studies prove that in fact they were ‘bought work’ made in Barbados, British West Indies in the early to late 1800s.  As Barbados and neighbouring islands were often the last port for English and Dutch traders and American whalers, these eight-sided boxes filled with exotic shells could be found in curio shops throughout the island.

It is most likely that the sailors purchased them as mementos to be brought back home to their wives, girlfriends or mothers. Some boxes featured sayings and endearments written out in shells such as Think of Me or Forget Me Not.

Idle hours spent aboard whaling ships in the 1800s, was thought to be the time and place for crafting Sailor’s Valentines. However, the creation of this intricate shell mosaic art was actually a cottage industry on the island of Barbados.  Often the last stop for English and Dutch traders and American whalers, sailors purchased a Valentine to bring home for family or loved ones.

These works of art were made in octagonal wooden boxes and usually two sided and hinged for easy transportation. A true sailor’s valentine was said to include a flower design, a heart form or a special message such as Think of Me or Forget Me Not, all made with shells.

Ella Doney shows off her work!


Elaborate keepsakes known as ‘sailor’s valentines’, originally thought to be a shipboard craft, were actually made in Barbados and sold as souvenirs to homeward bound sailors. Today anyone can make a sailor’s valentine by collecting ordinary beach shells and gluing then in fancy patterns onto a backing.


For additional information:
Richard MacMichael