Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sailors' Valentines: The Eighth Wonder?


Every year when I went to visit my parents' home in Naples, Florida, I would look forward to spending time with this book, Sailors' Valentines by John Fondas, which my mother always had sitting out on the table. And we would look through this beautiful, octagon-shaped book and marvel at all of the beautiful sailors' valentines it contained and talk about trying to make one of these valentines ourselves.


So, this past March while visiting my Dad, I noticed that the book was no longer sitting out. I went in search of it and found it tucked in a cabinet under the bookshelf. I pulled it out and looked at it again, thinking how Mom and I never got the chance to make one of these valentines...and that's when the idea of A Daughter's Valentine was born. I wanted to make a piece of embroidery, using shells and pearls and jewels, with the spirit of a sailor's valentine and I decided to make it my bead journal piece for August in honor of my Mom's birthday.


Sailors' Valentines were popular in the mid-nineteenth century when sailors would leave home to voyage on glorious sailing ships to seek trade and treasures in far off worlds. Folklore says that these valentines were originally made by the sailors themselves and brought back for loved ones at home. Original sailors' valentines are highly prized by collectors today and many of them can be traced back to merchants on the island of Barbados between 1830 and 1880 -- a port of call for American, English and Dutch trading ships.

Here are two examples by Grace Madeira who also co-authored another great book on the subject: Sailors' Valentines Their Journey Through Time which contains many contemporary examples being created and sold by modern artists.


Interestingly enough, these early examples were always in the shape of an octagon and, for the life of me, I can't find out why. The octagon is the quintessential sailor's valentine shape and so I have used that shape as the beginning of my interpretation.


The octagon often has the symbolic meaning of rebirth, regeneration and transition -- and the symbolism of the number eight is eternal life. One source I read says that the circle is symbolic of the heavens (also eternity/infinity) and the angularity of the square is symbolic of earthly presence. So, the octagon, which borrows from both shapes, symbolizes the transitional dance between heaven and earth. How cool is that? It's coincidences such as this one that lead me to believe that my hands really do receive divine guidance in my work.

I like the significance that the octagon shape gives to my work...and I love the metaphor of the valentine connecting loved ones who are separated by vast oceans.

I was also very pleased with how my shading turned out...a beautiful aqua ocean for the rest of my work.


And one more thing. The only time I have ever seen an antique sailor's valentine in person was on a visit to The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel island (it's fabulous!) which, I'm not kidding, is in the shape of an octagon!
Coincidence? I just don't know...

18 comments:

Marnie said...

How fascinating! The book is a real treasure. Can't wait to see how your valentine finishes out! It's already gorgeous!!

Maureen said...

Beautiful so far Susan!!

Marty52 said...

Beautiful book, Susan! Your shading is perfect, too. This is gonna be soooo special!

Judy S. said...

Another very interesting post, Susan, not to mention your lovely work! What a beautiful tribute to your mom. I hope you'll put some of this history on the back of it someplace... Oh, and when was your mom's b'day? (My mom's was in August also.) August is special in our family too for many reasons.

Ati. said...

Thank you for the beautiful photos of this book. I have never heard about a sailors valentine before. Good luck with your creation. I am sure it becomes great!

Vicky~ stichr ~ said...

Well the 3 M's seem to say it nicely. I wonder if you will dabble your toes in this one? Or maybe in another month's bead journal?

Robin said...

Your octagonal book gives me heart palpatations!!! Honest, it does! Someday I've got to see this book in person. Oh, and you bet, I'm going on line to see if I can find it.

On to even bigger things... How amazing! You decide to do a Daughter's Valentine and then research the octagonal shape and find it symbolizes the transitional dance between heaven and earth.... your Mom and you! Divine guidance is right!

This will be a beautiful piece, Susan... I'm soooooooooo looking forward to seeing it finished!

Robin said...

I just checked Amazon.com... Both books you mention are available, new. Think I'll use a $25 gift certificate I've been hoarding... I'm such a sucker for art books!

Vicki W said...

Thanks for sharing this. I've never heard of Sailor's Valentines. Now I want to do research on them!

Cindy Is Crafty said...

Perhaps it is because it is the shape of the ship's windows at that time? They were always looking out of them for home?

a2susan said...

I love that you share the history of Sailor's Valentines with us. I am very impressed that sailors actually made those gorgeous pieces of art. Considering how you parents have houses near water, it seems doubly fitting that your valentine to her reflects the octagonal shape and the soothing colors of water. I'm so excited for your valentine!

Susan

Carol said...

Susan, you are such a very interesting person! You have a diverse interest in things that most people know nothing about, and are thoughtful in sharing with us in such intersting ways.

You are certainly leaving a legacy to your son. Years from now he will show his children and grandchildren the wonderful creations you have made and pass on to them the stories that led to their creation.

Wanda said...

Hi Susan! I've missed you and now have a chance to get all caught up. I never heard of a sailor's valentine either. But boy are they wonderful! And I love the inspiration they were for you and I absolutely love the tribute to you mom. It's going to be awesome....it already shows love and beauty.

Jo in NZ said...

Susan, you are inspired, and inspiring!
Does that make sense? It did when I thought it, so I'll stick with it!
XX

Allison Ann Aller said...

Amazing!
Never have I heard of such a thing!
What a perfect inspiration for your August piece...

pam ehlers stec said...

Oh my gosh! I have this book too!!! It's one of my favorite books to browse through on a rainy afternoon. When I was a kid I used make Sailor's Valentines with my Mom and sisters. We would collect little shells and agates along the Oregon coast and then glue them inside the shallow lids of cardboard jewelry boxes. Your post brought back some wonderful memories for me. Thanks, Susan!

Lynn said...

Don't they remind you of a kaleidoscope???

Looking forward to seeing your BJP page complete. What a perfect idea for your page.

Dees said...

Evening Susan,

didn't take the time to read this post closely earlier, but did tonight. I have an inkling as to why all the sailors Valentines might be octagonal.
A number of years ago my husband volunteered at the maritime museum in Amsterdam on a replica of an Eastindiman. (Visit their website to get a good view: http://www.scheepvaartmuseum.nl/english/collection/eastindiaman-amsterdam) When I read your post I remembered the navigational instruments they used in that time and I did a little research of my own.
In early navigation (17th century) an instrument called an octant was used. The 8 corners of the octagon among others, refer to the wind-direction, since it is more acurate than using only 4. I think that the wind being so important in navigation and sailing, might have something to do with the shape.
It's only an educated gues, but if you want to know more about the instrument check out Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octant_(instrument)
Keep up the good work!

love Dees

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