Sunday, November 08, 2009

Down to the Sea: 1. Sailor's Valentines

or some time now I have had this bright idea that I would like to see my beloved hometown-of- choice, Gloucester, begin hosting an annual festival which I want to call the "Down to the Sea" Festival. Lots of tourist towns seek to extend their season by sponsoring a festival either early in the season or late. Newburyport's Literary Arts Festival is already a great success and it is only in its fourth year

So, since the sea has such a rich, rich collection of arts and lore, I think it would be a natural for Gloucester. I even designed  logo for it, see:

The festival would combine arts, crafts, skills, competitions, challenges, etc. It could encompass everything from sea-chantie sing-offs to story telling (ghost stories especially --- wouldn't that be great? a competition to see who could tell the best sea-ghost story???) There could be forums for writers who write about the sea (maybe Mark Kurlanski can host!) and exhibitions of maritime art by our many, many diverse artists (Paul Frontiero, where arrrrre you?) And, of course, there will be exhibits and sales of the crafts associated with the sea. I'm going to talk about those in up-coming blogs and today I'll start with Sailor's Valentines.

The story goes that when men were aboard ship for months at a time they would collect shells and other sea treasures along their travels. Then, with the help of  ship's carpenter, they would fashion a box (the tradition is in the shape of an octagon) and they would spend the long hours aboard-ship fashioning designs inside the box to present to their sweethearts or wives. The piece would be finished with a piece of glass fitted on the top and it would be presented to their beloved upon their return.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum has a lovely collection of Sailor's Valentines. My favorite is this one constructed of all white shells.

Sometimes the natural color of shells were used to create the pattern.

In Nantucket Whaling Museum has this treasure, a double Valentine:
Sailor's Valentine
Probable Date:
19th Century
Shell, wood, glass
Distinguishing Marks:
One side of octagon is very loose.
18" open
Two hexagonal wood boxes joined with a single hinge. Each box contains an arrangement of shells and is glazed with glass. The left box has an anchor and flowers made out of shells. The right box has a basket and flowers made out of shells. This sailor's valentine was a gift from Capt. Jared Wentworth Tracy (1797-1864) to his wife, Mary Hussey Tracy (1809-1891). The anchor symbolized Capt. Tracy's intention to return home and "anchor" at his wife's side.

I think our festival could have an exhibit of contemporary Sailor's Valentines as well as workshops for making them, vendors selling supplies and a competition to see who could create the most beautiful one. 

So the Sailor's Valentine is my first choice for my mythical Down-To-The-Sea Festival. Next time I'll talk bout pastry crimpers.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Love it! And Aquitaine is one of my favorite fonts (though I might do "SEA" in cap/lower case because the letters are so grand they sort of don't hang together, but the flourish on the "A" is so lovely). I love the idea of making sailor's valentines. Have you seen the scrimshaw swift at the Nantucket Whaling Museum? I fell madly in love with it before I even started knitting. Can't wait to see the crimpers!

  2. I think that's a great idea!Rockports
    "Harvest Festival" and "Motif #1 Days" are another example of strecthing the tourist season. But Rockport seems fairly busy all year round now. I prefer this time of year for a festival. The Middle st. Walk seems to be expanding with activities. Maybe closing off Main St. and having a Block party the same day of the walk will draw more people. Imagine Main St. at night all decorated for Christmas with Music and people all about would be a great way to Celebrate the Season. Great job on the logo. Love the Type style. Was that hand drawn? I'm a Screenprinter by trade and was in the Gloucester Vocational Schools print shop back in the
    70's and am a fan of Type styles.
    Take Care, Paul

  3. Thanks to both of you. I'd love to have one of those scrimshaw swifts, that's for sure.

    I'm going to keep pushing this idea. I have lots more to include.

  4. That would be a really great festival. Sailor's valentines appeal to my deep love of symmetry.

  5. The more I look at them, the more I love them. That second one with the sand dollars just thrills me --- what a gorgeous piece of work.

  6. Beautiful! What a lovely gift to receive from one's beloved.

  7. If you have a fetival that features Sailor's Valentines..they will come! My mom is a Valentine Artist so I know how much they all love to get together and show off their beautiful works of art.

    Good Luck!

  8. Oh, that would be great. I'd love it if your Mom would email me ( so I can ask more about it.


  9. I feel that this site could be very useful & informative. Looking forward to more stuff


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