Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Sailor's Valentine

An original Sailor's Valentine
There's more than just salt in the air on Cape Cod this month. It's sweeter, makes your heart flutter, and has bewitched us since the dawn of time. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when we decided to express our love by giving our sweethearts Valentines every February 14th. Some speculate that the first official Valentine was created by British Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe on February 14th, 1779, during the Revolutionary War. Presented to Sally Townsend, one of the daughters in a family whose house he and other British officers were occupying on Long Island, NY, the Valentine featured a passionate poem Simcoe wrote about her. The first two lines implore his beloved:

Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;

To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!

Alas, it was never meant to be for these star-crossed lovers. Simcoe inevitably went back to England after the war, and Sally never married, living until the age of 82. The Valentine given to her as a young woman was discovered to be among her possessions after her death.

Sally's Valentine by Mort K√ľnstler
By the dawn of the 19th century Valentines began to be mass-produced, approximately over 200,000 circulated in London alone by the 1820s. Some were simple, others impressingly elaborate, all depending on how much money the admirer wanted to spend.

A Victorian Valentine from 1870
Outside of the big cities, store-bought Valentines were much harder to come by, making lovers more creative with their gift giving. Here on Cape Cod, many of our men went out to sea for months on end, upon merchant ships or whaling vessels, thousands of miles away. Much of that time, one can imagine, they spent feeling homesick and heartsick for their significant others. What thoughtful and unique treasure could they bestow upon their Valentine to reflect the one-of-a-kind love they shared?

The island of Barbados in the Caribbean was an especially busy seaport during the 19th century. While in port, sailors often spent their free time searching for interesting souvenirs to bring home as gifts. An especially popular and completely unique souvenir exclusive to Barbados was what we now call a Sailor's Valentine. Traditionally octagonal in shape and encased in a wooden glass frame, each Valentine was decorated with beautiful colorful shells glued together in intricate designs. Many featured romantic sayings and designs, making them the perfect Valentine for the men to bring home to their wives. The women of Barbados were the artisans of these stunning creations, and between the 1830s and 1880s, they sold these to English and American sailors with tremendous success.

Original label behind a Sailor's Valentine from the New Curiosity Shop
Recognizing a lucrative business opportunity, two English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, opened up the wildly popular New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados, where they hired local artists to craft these Valentines, many of which still exist today with their labels on the back.

Some artists even took custom orders, inscribing personalized love notes requested by the sailor, thus coining the term, a "Sailor's Valentine."

Today these marvelous creations are incredibly valuable and highly sought after, with collectors appraising them anywhere from $500 to $10,000.00. Contemporary artists have also kept the art form alive by creating their own Sailor's Valentines. Cape Cod native, Sandy Moran, is probably the most renowned artist who specializes in this craft today. For twenty six years, she has crafted some of the most exquisite and intricate Sailors Valentines, and even teaches courses on how to craft your own. 

One of Sandy Moran's Sailor's Valentines
As we race to the supermarket tomorrow to snatch a last-minute Hallmark card and a box of chocolates, it's hard not to feel a shred of guilt when harkening back a century or two ago when Valentines were not only special, but in this case, literal works of art. Of course a gift of this quality today is well above most of our price ranges, but still, it presses me at least to pause and consider the true meaning and intent of St. Valentine's Day. We all too often find ourselves in this modern world rushed and unable to be bothered by things so frivolous as a Valentine, but think of the world of difference it would make if you presented your loved one with a gift from the heart. Be it a Sailor's Valentine or a photo of the two of you glued on pink construction paper, make Valentine's Day a holiday to cherish and to feel cherished again.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Insulating Your Old Home

A house in Centerville covered in snow from the Blizzard of '05 (Photo by Matt Suess)

As the Cape and the rest of the northeast wades knee deep through winter, homeowners, and in particular historic home owners, are making sure their homes are prepared for the cold weather too. Old houses, despite their beauty, have the tendency to be drafty. If your house hasn’t been completely remodeled to contemporary standards, your windows are likely single-paned, your plaster walls are uninsulated, and let’s face it: the overall construction of your home is just old. There is bound to be a crack somewhere. So where does one begin? Let’s start with windows.

Original double-hung window in an 18th century Connecticut cape

Single-paned windows featuring the original glass are treasures to hold. I personally would sacrifice comfort (along with my wallet) to preserve them if I had no other choice. Luckily, historic homeowners have many options to retain their original windows without sacrificing anything. Start with detecting any drafts your window might have. The easiest and most effective way to do this is by blowing smoke against the corners of the glass. Cigarettes aren’t necessary; incense, a smoke pencil puffer stick, or even a home inspector’s draft detector will do the job. Once you pin point where the drafts are coming from, reseal them and add weather-strips to increase the insulation.

Interior aluminum storm window in my bedroom

After the drafts have been taken care of, it’s time to consider storm windows. They’re nothing new; storm windows have been around for centuries and many old houses today already have them. My house, built in 1830, has the old aluminum storm windows from the 70s which are not so pleasing to the eye, but do the trick. Other homes are lucky to still have the original wooden storm windows from the 19th century that tend to blend in with the exterior of the home more and are only slightly noticeable. In recent times, many preservationists have opted to use interior storm windows which are nearly invisible and a fabulous choice for those who do not want to compromise the historic authenticity of their home. With various options to choose from, like glass, acrylic or polycarbonate glazing, interior storm windows are easy to install and remove and are surprisingly cost effective. Whichever type of storm window you choose, make sure each panel is functioning properly, and they'll be sure to block those icy drafts that gust right through your single-paned glass. 

Installing batts in the underside of a roof (Photo by

Moving on from the windows, arguably the most important place in an old home to insulate is in the attic. Statistically, 30-40% of heat is lost through the roof. Heat rises, so increasing the insulation within your attic is crucial for conserving the heat within your home. Fortunately, attics are the easiest room in the house to insulate. They’re usually unfinished, so adding batts (fiberglass insulation that comes in rolls) to the underside of the roof or to the attic floor is incredibly effective and simple to install. The only thing to keep in mind is ventilation. Make sure your attic has at least one source of ventilation (i.e. traditional gable vents or another type of vent) to prevent moisture from being trapped inside and creating wood rot.

A hidden treat discovered while restoring the plaster walls of an 18th century tavern in Long Island, NY.
Many people ask about insulating the plaster walls of an old house. My advice to them is to leave them alone. You might ask why and I’ll assure you that you will do more damage to your home than good by drilling holes into the plaster and blowing in insulation. Plaster walls were constructed without a vapor barrier the way sheetrock walls are built today. When moisture clings to plaster walls and enters through hairline cracks, outlets, etc., the foam insulation will trap the incoming moisture, eventually causing dry rot and mold. This excess moisture can also attract termites, and even cause exterior paint failure on wood siding. If that isn’t bad enough, the pressure from the insulation foam can expand and crack the walls, and in particularly bad cases cause structural damage to the entire house! All that being said, it is best to leave the walls as they were built two hundred years ago and focus on the alternative methods.

This fireplace heats the entire first floor of my half cape
Historic homeowners are a special breed. Instead of striving for flawlessness, we embrace our home's quirks and imperfections: squeaky floorboards, crooked walls, and yes, a little draftiness. It’s all part of the character. That still doesn’t mean you need to go broke and freeze this winter! As you see, there are many ways to add some extra insulation to your home without compromising its historical integrity. Let's also not forget those fireplaces of ours serve more than an aesthetic purpose-- they create warmth! So, as we curl up with a cup of cocoa and watch the snow fall this winter, turn down the heat and throw a log on the fire. You and your home will be toasty in no time.