Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Sailors, Whalers, Fantastic Sea Voyages (1750-1900)


We have studied sailors before, but we focused mainly on explorers and pirates, the sailors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Now that we are studying the 19th century, we took another look at the sailors of this time period. This time period was dominated by the whaling ships. The 19th century whaling industry was one of the most prominent businesses in America. Hundreds of ships setting out from ports, mostly in New England, roamed the globe, bringing back whale oil and other products made from whales. Islanders from Nantucket had taken to whaling because their soil was too poor for farming. Oil obtained from a whale’s blubber has been used for both lighting and lubricating purposes, and the bones of the whale were used to make a variety of useful products. In the early 19th century, a typical American household might contain several items manufactured from whale products, such as candles or corsets made with whalebone stays.  New Bedford, Massachusetts, became known as the world’s center of whaling, where wealthy whaling captains built large houses in the best neighborhoods. The Golden Age of American whaling extended into the 1850s, and what spelled its demise was the invention of the oil well.
scrimshaw sundial

Scrimshaw is probably the thing we remember most from this time period, and there are a number of scrimshaw-like art projects that can be done (one is listed below), but an artform that is lesser known are Sailor's Valentines. 
These works of art were made in octagonal wooden boxes and were usually two sided and hinged, covered with a glass overlay, and closed with a heart shaped lock. When closed, the shell work is hidden and the glass protected so that the Valentines could be stored safely for travel. Many left a space for the insertion of a picture, perhaps a wedding photo or a photo of the sailor and his sweetheart. Idle hours aboard whaling ships in the 1800's was thought to be the time and place for crafting Sailor's Valentines. However the creation of Valentines was actually a cottage industry on the island of Barbados. Once a stopping point on long sea voyages, sailors happily ordered and purchased a Valentine to bring home and present to a family member or loved one.
I went with a simpler approach, but also one that had some elements of the original Sailor's Valentines. I bought octagonal boxes at a hobby store. I was hoping to find wooden ones, but settled for these small sturdy cardboard ones. I also purchased a bag of small shells and let the boys glue them on to the boxes in any fashion they wished. Quentin decided to also use some glass counters that we had on hand for his box.
Quentin's Sailor Valentine, age 8

James' Sailor Valentine, age 11

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inspiration and sources:


  1. Love it! What a fun project to make with the shells and boxes.
    Blessings, Dawn

  2. Love the Sailor's Valentines and the history behind them! Fascinating. I might have to make boxes with my girls:) Thanks!

  3. I love their boxes, what a great idea. I actually have some shell decorated boxes somewhere that were my Mom's.

  4. Great post! Thanks for all the background information. Great maritime history, and great summer and/or valentine project.


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