Saturday, September 3, 2011


My interest in Shell Art began in the late 1990's. In 2002 I entered my first Shell Art show and started reading whatever I could get my hands on about the History of Sailor Valentines as well as hearing folklore stories.  I read about a shop in Barbados called the Curiosity Shop which was believed to be the source of many Sailors Valentines from the 1800's.  So I started, by trying to come up with a date as to when the shop opened to give me an idea of when this form of art began, but was unable to locate the answer anywhere.

So in December of 2010 I contacted a Historian in Barbados and another in Massachusetts and the search was on. After nine months of digging they found that B.H. (Benjamin Hinds) Belgrave opened his Curiosity Shop in 1878 and around 1895 his brother G.G.( George Gordon )Belgrave took over and operated the business until his passing in 1925. So I received the answer I was looking for,“1878” but ended up with a lot more information than I ever expected to find.
 It was found that the Belgrave family history dated back to the 1700`s in Barbados and that they did not immigrate as thought from England. The researchers came across an article about shell art being created in Barbados in 1750 and also a society established there in the 1800`s creating shell art.
I also received a printed article about a couple on a steam ship voyage to Barbados in 1845 purchasing a Sailors Valentine. All of this new information leads me to believe it could be possible that Barbadian natives were creating Sailors Valentines as far back as 1750, long before the Belgrave label ever appeared on Valentine cases in 1878. I wondered if I would be lucky enough to find who created the first valentine.
Well there is another fact to consider.   In the book Sailors Valentines by John Fondas on 1800`s Valentines he states, “that out of 100,000 species of shells in the world only 35 were used, all local to Barbados.”  Well this statement made me realize that when we go about creating this art form today we know that the shells we prefer generally come from warmer climates, such as the West Indies or Florida
So it seems that the native people of Barbados were creating forms of shell art dating back to 1750 and when it came to securing supplies they did not have far to travel. Just a walk to the beach where 35 species of colorful shells were just lying there free of charge to create their art. “So Who Made the First Valentine?”  Well research has not given me that final answer as yet but for now I`m placing my bet on the natives of Barbados.

Photo from the book Sailors` Valentines written by John Fondas published by Rizzoli International in 2002.


  1. Hi Bill, What are the names of the 35 shells found in the original sailor valentines?

    1. When John Fondas published his book in 2002 he made reference to 35 species and also stated that the cases were lined with cotton batting which turns out not to be completely true as I have viewed in many restorations dating to the late 1700`s and early 1800`s. If John had stated they used Caribbean Shells that would have been closer to the truth but even at that Sailing Ships were travailing worldwide long before the 1700`s using Barbados as a stoping off point to resupply and repair and there is no question in my mind that shells from other ports of call were being traded there. What John represents in pictures in his book is what was used whether the Valentine was created in Barbados, France or England. I hope this helps to answer your question. Bill

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