Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gifts from the Sea (Vintage Shell Displays)

Good morning!

While walking around pulling books this morning in the nonfiction stacks, I was thinking today about an estate sale I went to last week in West Meade. Do you ever check out preview photos of an estate sale or a listing on Craigslist and have one those pulse-quickening moments of "oooh, what IS that? Do I need that?! I need that, right?!". The photos for the Thanksgiving weekend sale had two things going for them-- first, this was one of only two sales running that holiday weekend; second, there were four plus photos of shells interestingly arrayed in decorative groupings. The picture format was teeny-tiny, but I snagged them from the listing anyway so you could get a gander at what I'm talking about:

Yeeks, right?! Careful, you could get your eye knocked out and your socks blown right off your body by the sheer visual intensity of these displays. Don't they look like something a Victorian teenager would spend hours meticulously handcrafting, from a "nature walk" at a pristine, turn of the century shoreline? Leilani, from Thriftaholic, had mentioned on her website's Facebook page the other day that she'd taken an interest in 1890's pressed seaweed albums, via this link on CollectorsWeekly, and didn't that have my little feelers buzzing for nautical arts and crafts of a certain, centenarian vintage? I like anything that looks like it might have hung in a middle school classroom or a gilded age front parlor, and doesn't this fit both bills with room to spare?!

Unfortunately, I got there, and the boards weren't what you'd think they would be. Most of the better ones seemed to have drifted out the door on the first day of the sale, and what was left would have left you underwhelmed-- cracked or loose shells, cheap velvet boards, no case to protect them, and just....bleh. However! The IDEA of them still resonates with the vibration of my tiny heart strings, and I went to the internet to find (much more expensive, but much more appealing) versions of this antique handicraft. 

Thinking of shadow boxes actually puts me in mind of a similar problem I've had with collecting butterfly displays. Again, I will buy anything that would ook out the average thrift shopper, and was excited to see a shadow box of an amateur lepidopterist's trappings in the wall hangings section of the Hendersonville Goodwill. This is the part of the joke where you go, "Well, that's good!" and I say, "No, that's bad", because the jostling from either the donation bin to the shelf, or maybe some transit of boxes in someone's attic, had dislodged the long-gone-on-to-their-greater-reward insect's bodies from their scientific moorings. Some lay, legs skyward, at the bottom of the glass case, intact; others presented in iridescent shards as their brittle wings disintegrated from the impact. This was, like in the several times I've tried on a mink stole and realized I'm holding an expired cousin-to-a-weasel's paw in my own hand as I try to the fasten the clasp, a major gross out to the queen of not being grossed out by vintage collectibles. EUUUGH! Why! Similarly, if I was going to buy one of these, I would want one with no half-broken pieces, reminding me that the materials making up my decorative display were once however transient, corporeal beings. Plus, yuck, who wants starfish legs broken off and floating loose at the bottom of a picture frame?

Vintage specimen sea shell coral shadow box divers box nautical decor
This seashell and coral shadow box may be my favorite-- how effective is the placement and the velvet backing? I think one of the mistakes the estate sale person's handcrafter made was putting the shells naked on this weird, stiff, cheap velvet board that had a kind of stand to it, rather than attaching them to a flat board covered in matte velvet and placing that in a frame. The glass would have protected the shells from the damage that shied me away from buying even a single tableau, plus, anything in a frame looks better than anything out of a frame. I love how the tiny clam-shells look like butterflies in the box above, and the pink of the coral contrasted with the yellow of the shells. Sign me up for one!

Vintage 1930's Shell Basket Display - Large
Etsy boasted a pair of shell basket displays made by either a seaside vendor or a tourist to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1939-- we can tell because whomever the artisan was, they helpfully added the date and place on one of the shells before enclosing the entire scene in its glass case. This display replaces the stark black velvet with sand, and isn't it cute! I might prefer the other for the more vivid contrast, but this medium gets points for relevancy to the subject. Plus, basket-- good idea for a decorative item when wall space is at a premium (pretend I wouldn't just hang this basket on the wall).

Vintage 1930's Shell Basket Display
Here's an interesting piece. A shop called Paulstaberminerals (say that three times fast) has a ton of split fossilized shells that are aching to be displayed in my home, en masse. Now, these shells might outdate the ones we're looking at by a cool couple million years, but what they lack in freshness, they make up for in a quality of serious psychedelia. See more here and here. Did you know shells look like that on the inside? I think I've only seen broken, non-fossilized ones, not carefully bisected fossil versions, and my, aren't they yar.

Cut Split Pair RARE ANAPUZOSIA Ammonite wide body D-shape Crystal Cavity MEDIUM
Last but not least, while trying out the search terms "shell display" and "shadow boxes", I came across a whole subset of collectibles called "sailor's valentines." While that might sound like a euphemism for some kind of social disease, they are in fact hand crafted, incredibly detailed shell art, primarily dating between 1830-1890 (though they're still made by craftspeople today). According to Wikipedia, these were souvenirs made up originally by women in Barbados, to sell to sailors visiting ports of call, who would then in turn take them home to their sweethearts. I had a vision when I first heard the term of a sweet, galunk-y forties' sailor stationed on some South Seas island, carefully collecting shells with his big, capable hands, and then trying like the devil to arrange them in these dainty, geometrical patterns for his "girl back home". The Barbados souvenir theory holds more water than my original idea, but it's still funny to think about.

Sailors Valentine, Cameo Seashell Shadow Box
How about you? Do you have any natural history like decor in your home, from sea or land? What kinds of science related tchotchkes do you collect, if any? Which of these forms of shell displays would you be most likely to snatch up for your very own? If you remember from an earlier post, I have this great shell lamp I still don't have any place to put, so I'm full up on seashell-related collectibles, but if one of these came my way in a more appealing version than the ones I saw at that estate sale...well, I might have to lift the ban for just a moment. :)

That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow for Photo Friday! Til then.


  1. These are really cool! Seeing as I grew up inland with a self-professed shell-motif-hater for a mother, I rarely ever remember that there are these things called shells that can be used for decorative purposes. For whatever reason, I really like the Daytona Beach one.

    1. Haha, as soon as you said that, I started thinking of all the 'Cape Cod, Lighthouse, Sea Shell' themed 1990's bathrooms I have seen in my life-- I guess it IS a kind of overdone motif in that context, but think about it from the "classification" or "kitsch" angle...aren't the Daytona Beach ones neat? I hope someone made it as a souvenir rather than bought it, it would make the story even better!

  2. Those are wack-a-doo! However the bottom on is really pretty! I kinda want it!

    1. I want to make one! Now, if only I could get to somewhere with a beach....

  3. those are really cool! i like the one with coral too. i have some taxidermy in my house. which i know is weird. I just LOVE it! Mine pieces are all vintage and kind of weird looking.

    1. All your taxidermy (that I've seen on the blog) is AWESOME. I love that "natural history" museum touch to a room!

  4. These are gorgeous! I was obsessed with these as a 12-year-old :D Lots of them scattered around Florida and they were strangely popular at that time.

    1. That's so neat! I hadn't seen one before, but then got totally hooked on the IDEA of them after that estate sale. Hopefully, some low price, high quality ones are out there waiting for me!! :)



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