Sailors’ Valentines

By Marina Davalos | Photos by Robert Scott Button and Marina Davalos 

New England lore says that homesick sailors of the 1800s—out at sea for months or years—fashioned finely crafted designs of shells in octagonal wooden cases as they whiled away their time far from loved ones at home. Historians, however, have traced “Sailors’ Valentines” back to the island of Barbados, a major seaport of the day. Barbadian women and children made the shell art pieces and sold them as souvenirs to foreign sailors. Here are two Cape Cod artists instrumental in keeping the sentimental art form alive.

Sandy Moran

Sandy Moran incorporates a variety of items, from an oil painting of a ship to colorful tropical shells, in her sailors’ valentines.

Sandy Moran’s parents were antique dealers, and she, a Boston accountant Monday through Friday, operated her own antique shop on the weekends in Hingham. In 1989, she left both jobs and moved to Sanibel Island, home of the Sanibel Shell Show. “But I was bored when I got there,” says Moran, who lives in Yarmouth Port. “I was used to working so much.”

Eventually, she visited a shell shop with the intention of learning a craft and while there befriended Jean Karabin, who made sailors’ valentines. Moran was familiar with the art form, having had one from the 1800s pass through herhands while in the antique business. She was inspired by Karabin’s work and decided to make her own. “My first one was shaped like a heart,” says Moran, who has since participated in and won prizes at shell shows in Florida and on the Cape. Her intricate designs in a range of color schemes can take months to complete. Moran teaches classes and workshops on the Cape and in Sanibel, and has been known to take students out shelling.

Gregg Roberts

Gregg Roberts, working in his Cotuit home, says making sailors’ valentines is “really peaceful.”

A retired pharmacist, Cotuit resident Gregg Roberts remembers seeing his first sailor’s valentine at a whaling museum when he was 5 years old. Decades later, he awoke from a dream one morning compelled to create one of his own. Since he didn’t have any small shells in his house, he fashioned his first sailor’s valentine out of dry macaroni noodles. “I didn’t want to research designs or anything, I wanted to create it from my mind’s eye,” says Roberts. And that’s how he approaches each piece of artwork: “I don’t draw them out first—I just create as I go along.” He got better at it and started purchasing shells from catalogs in the days before the Internet. “Making them is really peaceful,” says Roberts. “It’s a good mental exercise.”

When a woman asked him to teach her how to make them, she suggested he show his shells in Sanibel. In his first year exhibiting in the Sanibel Shell Show, Roberts won first prize. Over time, he gathered shells from all over the world, and his designs often feature flowers fashioned out of the tiniest of shells, intertwined with nautical knots. “My signature is this flat knot work,” he says.

The large valentine hangs in the Cotuit Public Library

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