Exhibit of week: Whitby’s sea shell house

Shell house''w140704
Shell house''w140704

Sea shells have long been used for ornament and for currency; examples of both, from across the world, can be found in Whitby Museum.

In the 18th Century, and through to Victorian times it was fashionable for aristocratic and house-ladies to make pictures, models, and even to decorate houses in shells.

In those times, ladies from the royal family downwards, and those who may have had the money and social position to have time on their hands – including those as portrayed in the BBC’s Cranford series – would take up craft hobbies.

Amazingly, for such a popular pastime, there seems to be very little left, and although many museum collections have an example or two, this is only a fraction of the pieces made.

This may be because, although shells are appealing, easy to collect, and fun to arrange, once set into patterns or pictures they quickly become dirty, and difficult to clean.

This was the fate of our shell house, which had been consigned to the cellar by a long-past curator, and was only rediscovered when I was clearing out this cellar prior to renovation work.

A couple of our present volunteer team spotted it, thought it could be cleaned up and re-displayed, found someone willing to do this, and asked that it be placed in the library once the recent renovation work was complete.

The house in its case takes two to lift, but more usually, objects made of, or covered with, shells are easier to handle.

A popular 19th Century form was the ‘Sailor’s Valentine’ which was two frames hinged together to make a box when closed.

Often these had hearts or a motto in the design, but were no as may be supposed made by sailors, but sold in ports on both sides of the Atlantic for sailors to take home to their sweethearts.

One main source of these love tokens was Barbados, and some even bear the motto Made in Barbados; but our house is possibly either English or European.