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Shell tokens of a sailor’s love

PUBLISHED: 11:04 28 October 2017

A typical sailor’s valentine with the bonus of a carte-de-visite for both the giver and the recipient. Beautiful shells, too, almost certainly originating in Barbados. Picture: Mike Hicks

A typical sailor’s valentine with the bonus of a carte-de-visite for both the giver and the recipient. Beautiful shells, too, almost certainly originating in Barbados. Picture: Mike Hicks

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Collectables: Mike Hicks on some charming love tokens associated with sailors of yesteryear.

Whoever said that men were not romantic, well, they certainly were years ago. And in the antique trade you do often find small tokens of love and affection, not just for Valentine’s Day but for all occasions.

One such token was the glass rolling pin, which was frequently inscribed on the outer surface with a poetic verse or a few lines, extolling somebody’s love. These were frequently given by sailors to their loved ones to hang in the sitting room when the husband went to sea to remind his wife of his presence with her at all times.

Much rarer than the glass rolling pins are the extremely uncommon Sailor’s Valentines. Normally, they are contained in hexagonal boxes, made of wood, which fold open to provide a display within the lid and the base of the box.

An arrangement of beautifully-coloured shells with glass covers, these allegedly started life in Barbados. Many examples have been found where the lining paper under the shells was a paper originating on that island.

The intricacy and the way that the shells are displayed in the boxes is truly wonderful, and they have stood the test of time. It is believed that these sailor’s tokens originated as far back as 1830, but by the 1890s they had begun to become obsolete.

They were designed to be bought home from a sailor’s voyage overseas, to be given to his loved one upon his return. Normally, they are small in size, 8-10in across, but examples have been found as large as 20in across. The centrepiece is sometimes formed as a heart design, but I have seen examples - example above - which has photographs of the couple themselves.

The boxes themselves are made of mahogany, or occasionally, a rarer wood such as zebra-wood, coramandle-wood or a member of the rosewood family.

There was a great resurgence in shell craft in the early part of the 21st century, but I fear that unless you are doing it as a hobby, the time it takes to make these ornate objects, let alone to source and colour the shells, would make them too expensive to sell today.

They are a wonderful example of Victorian flirtatiousness and, should you be lucky enough to find one, you will find they are much more expensive than you might have thought. Older ones cost from the lower hundreds of pounds upwards.

Although they may have been known as Sailor’s Valentines, they were almost certainly not made by the sailors themselves. Almost all of them were made by island workers and sold via a shop in Bridgetown called “The Old Curiosity Shop” .

In 1976, actor Peter Coke (radio’s Paul Temple) retired to Norfolk and developed his talent for creating shell pictures to a high standard. Sadly, he died in 2008, but the legacy of his shell work lives on and you can more than 100 of them at the Fishermen’s Heritage Centre - closed in winter - on West Cliff, Sheringham.

Oh, and gentlemen: there is plenty of time between now and Valentine’s Day to start collecting shells in readiness...

Mike Hicks runs Stalham Antique Gallery at 29 High Street, Stalham (NR12 9AH). You can contact Mike on 01692 580636 or info@mikehicksantiques.co.uk.

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