Harbor Point at Centerville Bringing Back the Lost Art of Sailor’s Valentine

Artwork at senior home

What do you get when you painstakingly assemble hundreds to thousands of seashells, some as small as a single grain of rice, into an intricate mosaic pattern, creating the perfect art piece? Sailor’s Valentine.

Although much mystery has surrounded their origins, Sailor’s Valentines date back to as early as the mid-1700s. On the island of Barbados, local women created and sold them as souvenirs to visitors. As Barbados was a frequent stop for North Atlantic–based ships and was often the last before home, sailors would buy them as gifts for loved ones, and so the name Sailor’s Valentine came to be.

Although some may remember seeing this 19th-century craft adorning grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ homes, Sailor’s Valentines have become a thing of the past in recent years.

Harbor Point at Centerville, a Benchmark Mind & Memory Care community on Cape Cod, is committed to reviving this lost art.

The project was inspired by Harbor Point resident Linda George and her husband Lloyd George, both longtime fixtures in Barnstable, Mass.

“Honoring who our residents were before Alzheimer’s or dementia is a big part of our focus here at Harbor Point,” said Christine Roberts, Harbor Point’s programming director. “Throughout her life, Linda has been passionate about crafts, and we’ve been excited to nurture this part of her memory with something special that she and our other residents enjoy.”

A retired Cape Cod Hospital emergency room (ER) nurse, Linda’s love of crafts started with knitting in college and eventually evolved into crocheting, needlepoint and intricate Nantucket basket-weaving.

In the early 2000s, after seeing a Sailor’s Valentine in a local retail shop, she was drawn to the craft and, together with her friends, embarked on a new hobby. It was one that was fueled by many shell-hunting trips on Cape Cod beaches and vacations from Malaysia to Mexico.

Even a family fishing trip on which Linda caught the biggest fish was fodder for Sailor’s Valentines. “She was very excited about what the fish scales would lend to her next Valentine, and not at all in the beautiful filets,” recalled Lloyd.

In 2006, a Garden of Friends Valentine that Linda and her friends had created to commemorate another’s breast cancer recovery was featured in Sailors’ Valentines: Their Journey Through Time Hardcover (Grace Madeira).

Today, every wall, nook and cranny of their family home in Barnstable are adorned with Linda’s creations, including dozens of Sailor’s Valentines featuring her signature flowers.

“Being an ER nurse while also raising children was stressful, and I think this was a way for her to take her mind off of her work and really focus on something else,” said Lloyd.

For Harbor Point’s first Valentine, Lloyd created a large, 2×2-foot wood frame complete with a template and donated shells from the George’s vast collection. Weekly over three months, residents with all stages of dementia and staff from throughout the community gathered to create or just watch the process, including Linda, who took on a “supervisory” role.

Though Linda inspired the project, it has connected and engaged all the community’s residents and staff. “Many had never heard of it, so it’s been a great education process for all of us,” said Christine. “Given each shell’s varying size, shape and color, it’s been excellent for our residents’ sensory and fine motor skills. But more importantly, it’s given them such feelings of purpose and pride.”

The project has also inspired family members. “We have several who are looking to create a Valentine with their loved one as a way to honor and remember them,” said Christine.

Even though Harbor Point just completed their first Valentine, they are already looking forward to creating another one in the fall.

Associates at senior home working on art

Harbor Point at Centerville