Neptune’s Bounty as Art

Key West, Florida, 1887

It’s funny how simple tasks can sometimes send authors of historical fiction down a research rabbit hole. The other day, I was dusting the glass dome of an object inherited from my mother-in-law and found myself wondering why I had never looked into the history of the art form. The object, pictured at left, was purchased for $1.50 in 1887 ($42 today) by MIL’s great aunt on a visit to Key West, Florida. It was entirely made by hand using small seashells and silk covered copper wire. I have no idea how many hours were devoted to its creation, but I suspect they were many. While these objects may appear overdone and terribly fusty by today’s standards, they were once the rage in the late Victorian era.

Thus far, sources of information about what one source described as a cottage industry have been limited. While these pieces are considered collectors’ items, they do not seem to have the historical interest of other things created by amateurs. My mother-in-law hid a page torn from what must have been a crafts booklet under my shell basket. This is what it said about the art form: “Shell work was very fashionable as an amateur craft in Victorian England. The ladies of this period were patient and skillful at creating representations of popular show flowers such as dahlias, passion flowers, and camellias as well as more common blooms – all entirely made of shells. These were arranged in elaborate compositions which were displayed under glass domes in Victorian parlors. Shell flowers and other ingenious designs were also used to decorate boxes and a great variety of objects which crowded the whatnots.” In other words, they are one of those little interesting footnotes of history, but they are also part of a much broader and ancient tradition.

Carol and Robert Smyth recount in their book, Neptune’s Treasures, that shells have been collected and traded since around the year 3000 B.C. Ancient civilizations beginning with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and extending to Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Phoenicia, and Greece all incorporated shells and shell shapes into their jewelry, objet d’art, and utensils designs. The Smyths write of the excavation of the tomb of one of the queens of Ur where shell- encrusted wooden boxes and harps, shell utensils, and gold and silver shell shaped toiletry items were found.[1]

Egyptian Electrum and Bead Necklace – Electrum is a natural or artificial alloy of gold with at least 20 percent silver, used for jewelry, especially in ancient times.

For the ancients, shells were not just decorative. They created wealth, as well. The Egyptians ground up the shells of the murex snail and boiled the shards to produce the color Tyrian purple. It was an instant hit with kings and nobles alike. From that time, the color purple has been associated with royalty from which the saying “born to the purple” comes. The Greeks and Romans adopted it as did the Christian Church. Purple is the color of bishops.

Shells seem to have had an almost universal, historical appeal. In Africa, cowrie shells were used as money and as signs of good luck and prosperity. Women in India consider shells to be fertility charms. For Christians, the scallop shell represents Saint James, the Apostle. His symbol can be found throughout in churches and historical houses in Europe, especially in the areas through which the Compose de Santiago (Santiago Pilgrim Trail) passes. Baptismal fonts in many European churches are in the shape of a scallop shell.

The use of shells in European art reached a high point during the Renaissance, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus probably being its most recognized example.

African Cowrie Shell and Leather Necklace
Bernini’s Triton Fountain, Rome
Sea Shell Encrusted Grotto, location unknown.

Even royalty became enchanted with the use of shells in architecture. The kings of France were just as enamored of the feature as their English neighbors. Henry IV’s first wife Margaret, Louis XIV, and Louis XVI all commissioned such features for their gardens. [4]

As we move into an era closer to our own, no discussion of shell work would be complete without a brief look at cameo brooches. While they are not the products of amateurs, they became very popular ornaments beginning in the late 18th century. Cameo creation is an ancient art form which reached the height its of popularity in the 19th century. A form of bas-relief, they are often carved from conch shells. A carved shell cameo will have a medium brunt orange hued background and off-white foreground figures. True shell cameos have a transparent quality when held up to a light source. [5]

Shells were not used exclusively in high art. The Italians began the tradition of creating grottoes in their gardens and of using shells to encrust the interiors. Englishmen taking the Grand Tour admired what they saw and brought the concept home with them. The English went on the incorporate shells into architectural details in their gardens and their homes. Decorative arts historian Simon Calloway writes about the loggia created by the Fourth Earl Bedford as ”a magnificent baroque conceit with bold architectural motifs, decorative panels and three-dimensional figures in niches all worked in shells.” [3]

Shell cottage at Chateau Rambouillet, built by Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette.
Interior shot of Rambouillet cottage.

As England became an empire with ships bringing in goods from across the globe, using sea shells as decoration was no longer only for the rich. Large and affordable quantities became part of ship’s cargoes and Victorian middle and upper class ladies could not get enough of them. Lidy of French Garden House tells us, “Victorian ladies could purchase shell work supplies in Mrs. Roberson’s shop on London’s Grosvenor Square, packets were sold with shells already sorted and accompanied by printed patterns for forming shell flowers, boxes and frames. Every major city in Europe had such shops, and shell work became a pastime many enjoyed, young and old alike.” [6] And as we know, anything that became popular in 19th century England soon found its way across the pond.

That brings us full circle back to Great, Great, Great Aunt Annie Lite’s shell basket made and bought in Key West in 1887. It is a treasure that we will pass on to our grandchildren!


Examples of Victorian Shell Work

Related Historical Fiction

My shell basket features in the later chapters of my novel Confederado do Norte.

Set during the aftermath of the American Civil War, Confederado do Norte tells the story of Mary Catherine MacDonald Dias Oliveira Atwell, a child torn from her war devastated home in Georgia and thrust into the primitive Brazilian interior where the young woman she becomes must learn to recreate herself in order to survive.   

October, 1866.

Mary Catherine is devastated when her family emigrates from Georgia to Brazil because her father and maternal uncle refuse to accept the terms of Reconstruction following the Confederacy’s defeat. Shortly after arrival in their new country, she is orphaned, leaving her in Uncle Nathan’s care. He hates Mary Catherine, blaming her for his sister’s death. She despises him because she believes Nathan murdered her father. When Mary Catherine discovers Nathan’s plan to be rid of her as well, she flees into the mountain wilderness filled with jaguars and equally dangerous men. Finding refuge among kind peasants, she grows into a beauty, ultimately attracting the attention of the scion of a wealthy Portuguese family. Happiness and security seem within reach until civil unrest brings armed marauders who have an inexplicable connection to Mary Catherine. Recreating herself has protected Mary Catherine in the past, but this new crisis will demand all of the courage, intelligence, and creativity she possesses simply to survive.   

Resources and Notes

  1. & 3. Moonan, Wendy. “Antiques: Seashells for Love and Money.” New York Times, April 24, 1998, Section E, Page 37.

2. Jaffe, Hans L., Editor. 20,000 Years of World Painting. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1967.

4. & 6. Secret Life of Antiques: Victorian Shell Work. The French Garden, May 30, 2015, accessed May 13, 2021.

5., accessed May 13, 2021.