Sailor’s Valentine

September 21, 2011

Florida is a haven for shell collecting enthusiasts, but what do they do with all those shells they collect? Display them somehow? One of the most beautiful and unique ways of displaying shells, that I’ve ever seen, is by way of an art form developed in the early 19th century. Sailor’s Valentines.  I came across several of these at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum while in Sanibel Island.  

A  few quick notes on this exquisite, detailed art form:

  • They are not what their name implies. Sailors did not make them, and they were not given as gifts on Valentines Day.
  • They were popular in the early 19th century during the height of the whale-oil industry. Sailors would purchase them for their loved ones while in their last port of call before returning home.
  • The shell art form was developed by the women of Barbados and other Caribbean islands.
  • The frames for the shell art are octagonal boxes.
  • Several of the valentines contained romantic phrases such as “Forget me not.”
  • According to several researchers,the primary source for these keepsakes was a shop in Bridgetown, Barbados called the New Curiosity Shop, owned by two English brothers.  (Unfortunately the shop closed around 1880.)

This antique art form is now experiencing renewed interest. Kits and books on the subject can be found all around the state.  The museum on Sanibel Island even provides a display making it look easy.

They are quite costly if you try to buy one from the early days, many going for as much as $16,000. Another option is to make one for yourself.  At Sailors Valentine you can purchase a full Starter’s Kit, complete with frame, sanddollars and shells. That will only set you back about $134.oo.  Otherwise, you can start collecting shells now and design your own shell mosaic.

I can see myself hanging one of these on my wall. But do I have the patience to first collect the large amount and variety of shells, then set out the pattern and carefully set each shell?  Stay tuned.


Mollusk Mania

June 15, 2010

Mollusks, Shells, and the Stoop
Sanibel Island

I quickly learned that visiting Sanibel Island at the end of May is not the best time for shell collecting. The strong northwestern winds that cast thousands of shells upon the beaches had given way to the more gentle southerly breezes which seem to take most of the shells back out to sea. 

I’ve never been a big shell collector and was fine with just picking up a few here or there.  However, once I saw how many shells there were, even hours past low tide and at the wrong time of the year, I suddenly developed that “Sanibel Stoop” so many people talk about.  The sun was unrelenting but I kept on until my pockets, and hands, were full.    

Freaky Creatures 

While collecting beautiful shells, I wonder how many people actually think about what once lived inside them.  I myself never thought much about it until our visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel.   

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum

One example of the incredible exhibits at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum

Two documentary films were shown while we were at the museum.  While Matt slept through at least one of them, I stared at the screen, completely appalled and amazed at the same time.  The freaky, meaty little creatures that live in shells are actually quite fascinating.  They have this “foot” they use to propel themselves forward and backward.  Certain mollusks flip themselves away from predators. Some mollusks eat other mollusks. Many times I wanted to look away from the screen, but I vowed to be a grown-up and somehow learn to appreciate them. 

One of the films mentioned that it is against the law to take shells with their residents still very much alive and living in them. Did we really need a law for this? Who would want a live mollusk to take home?  In any case, I thought it would be rare to find live mollusks washed up on the beaches, but a walk along one beach quickly proved me wrong.  I found a beautiful shell, which I believe was either a Lightning Whelk or a Banded Tulip whelk.  Quite giddy with my find, and ready to place it in my pocket, I suddenly remembered the museum film and turned the shell over to look inside.  A dark brown putty mass stuck out of the crevice.  My first instinct was to drop it like a hot piece of coal.  Instead, I took it to the ever patient Matt and asked him to look inside.  He confirmed that somebody was indeed home and we returned it to the ocean.

Next we ventured out into waist-deep water with our masks.  The goal was to explore the sandy bottom several hours before low tide.  With only a few inches of visibility I decided to let Matt continue the search alone as I stood watching and waiting.  Time and time again he would surface and present a live sand dollar, a live starfish, or a beautifully intact shell with a live mollusk inside.  After we admired each one, he placed them back on the sandy bottom.  If only I had had my camera in its waterproof case instead of an unused mask…

She Sells Sea Shells 

My only other shelling adventure during these three short days in Sanibel was a trip to a shell shop whose name made it impossible to resist – She Sells Sea Shells.  What is it about that tongue twister that always makes me smile?  I had to buy something with the shop’s name on it, so I chose an inexpensive pink can coozie.  Then I saw the Christmas tree in the back of the shop, with ornaments made out of shells.  I’ve often thought about starting a collection of theme ornaments and decided this was the day to act on it. Maybe I’ll even make a few of my own with the shells I collected during this trip.

A few trips back to Sanibel are definitely in my future. Maybe I’ll wait until the winds come from the northwest, say in Winter or early Spring, and really see what shelling is all about. Or maybe I’ll just take my chances and head over for a long weekend.  Maybe rent a bike, sit on the beach, get lucky and find an abandoned whelk shell or two.  It’s nice to know such a place exists so close to home.