Antiques and fine art specialist Mark Huddleston looks at how exotic faraway shores influenced Valentine’s Days gone by
As our thoughts turn to Valentine’s Day perhaps, like me, you struggle to buy for your better half. Chocolates… flowers… champagne? Or, how about some shells or a wooden spoon? No, really, a wooden spoon! Imagine yourself back in Victorian England. Your beloved has set sail for the West Indies and rather than returning after a fortnight’s cruise they may not be back for a year or two. Moreover in the days before photography, texting and the Internet, how was it best to remember them? ‘The Sailor’s Farewell’ was a common theme throughout the 19th century. A whole industry sprang up to provide keepsakes or mementoes as a reminder of loved ones, be they at sea or on shore. For the sweetheart left behind, earthenware, pottery mugs or glass rolling pins with sentimental verses were a typical gift. It is no coincidence that the major port cities of the Georgian and early Victorian era – Liverpool, Bristol and Sunderland – were also important areas of glass and pottery production, and therefore produced souvenirs to cater for this market.
The gifts which sailors brought back upon their return tended more towards the exotic. Given that much of the Victorian period saw involvement in the West Indies – through the various trades of spices, rum, sugar, and even slavery – many of the ships would carry love tokens which typified that alien environment. The ‘shell valentine’ was one such creation, composed of hundreds of brightly-coloured shells thoughtfully arranged into hearts and verses. It was also common for sailors to spend much of their time away fashioning love tokens in the form of ‘scrimshaw’ – the art of engraving on material such as the teeth of sperm whales and the tusks of walrus. With all that time at sea, sailors often created thoughtful and intricate works of art from modest means. The few materials that they had to hand, such as bone and wood, meant that skills like carving ‘love spoons’ really came to the fore.
The 19th century saw some wonderful examples of folk art in the form of spoons and knitting sheaths and we are fortunate in Birmingham to have the Pinto Collection, a fascinating social history of such objects available at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. With the 1840s came the advent of colour printing, photography and the Penny Post. Approximately 35,000 Valentine’s cards were sent in the early years of the Penny Post. Today, the Valentine industry is worth £1.3 billion annually with some 25 million cards sent in the UK alone.