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Nautical Folk Art

December 8th, 2015 by Piper Smith

A “Sailor’s Valentine”, popular from about 1830-1890, was a distinctive gift brought home to a loved one from a sea voyage. Sailor’s Valentines were typically composed of symmetrical, sometimes intricate, designs created by gluing shells of various sizes and colors to a flat surface, most commonly the bottom of an octagonal wooden box. Hearts, anchors, and compass roses were frequent design motifs, sometimes accompanied by a sentimental phrase. With the lack of space and limited leisure time available to many seamen, commercially produced versions of the Sailor’s Valentine sold as souvenirs became the mainstay of the new curiosity shop in Bridgeport, Barbados.


Scrimshaw, the scratching or incising of images, designs and text on a piece of ivory or other bone, was another form of maritime folk art in the 19th century. The etching was usually done with a large needle intended for sail repairs while the image was brought out by rubbing oil, soot, or even tobacco juice into the lines created. Primarily the domain of whalers, scrimshaw first appeared around 1817, usually using the tooth of a sperm whale. A scrimshaw piece often marked an event or celebrated a particular journey or accomplishment in words, and pictures.


Sailors have also traditionally made toy boats and model ships as keepsakes or gifts for sweethearts and family members. The combination of the model ship with the “impossible bottle” resulted in the phenomenon known as the Ship in a Bottle. The earliest known example dates back to 1784 and the craft has continued to this day. Usually realized by the insertion of the ship’s hull with masts laying flat and later raised with sticks and threads, this art form required a steady hand and tremendous patience.