Sailors’ Shell Valentine

Valentines, or love tokens, like these were brought by sailors in Barbados on their way home to give to their loved ones after months or years away at sea. Barbados, one of the earliest British Colonies, was an important port of call in the Atlantic from the 1600s. Local crafts people made shell love tokens from the 1750s and they are still made today, but the peak of their production was between 1820 and 1880. Two English brothers, Benjamin and George Belgrave, owned a shop in Bridgetown, Barbados, and it is most likely that they started commissioning and selling them in a more commercial way.

This shell valentine was made mid 19th century in Barbados. The octagonal double fronted cases (this image only shows one side – the other is detached at the hinge) were made from local wood, and the shells and seeds used were all indigenous to Barbados. Only about 35 types of shell were used. The patterns varied, but all conform to a similar symmetrical style, sometimes with a written motif in the centre.

This shell valentine is on display in the Life Events case in Gallery 4.