Colonial Shell Souvenirs in The Strong: An Australian Connection?

Sailor’s Valentine, Barbados, about 1875, The Strong, Rochester, New York.Margaret Strong obviously loved shells and crafts made from shells, judging from the quantity of those items in her collection. In fact, Margaret’s shell collection drew me all the way from my home in Australia to Rochester, New York. While researching The Strong museum’s collection of Victorian shellwork during my research fellowship, I stumbled across a diminutive pair of shell-covered baby booties. The decorative cardboard booties—edged with red velvet fabric and ornamented with shells and shell grit—bear a striking resemblance to those produced by the Aboriginal women of La Perouse, a coastal community near Sydney, Australia. As a scholar based in Sydney, I became interested in La Perouse shellwork as part of my book project on the commodification of the 19th-century ocean world. Although shells were used in pre-contact cultural practices by Aboriginal groups in southeastern Australia, the shellwork crafted at La Perouse was a product of the colonial encounter between Europeans and Aborigines. The local Aboriginal women learned the craft from settlers and missionaries in the 1870s and 1880s, adopting the practice as a form of trade to supplement the local fishing economy.

Trinket box, England, about 1880. The Strong, Rochester, New York.Crafting shell souvenirs could be lucrative since the collection and display of shells, including shellwork, developed into a widespread practice in the 19th century. Victorian women incorporated shells into elaborate creations guided by craft manuals and magazines, which provided step-by-step instructions on how to create booties, baskets, letter holders, bouquets, and myriad other fancy articles modeled from wire, wood, and cardboard and then embellished with decorative shell patterns, often in the form of flowers or symmetrical mosaic designs. Local businesses quickly capitalized on this trend with seaside shops offering collections and arrangements of shells for sale. Fueled by the allure of rare and exotic species, this practice extended to colonial territories around the world. In the West Indies, especially in Barbados, octagonal boxes filled with intricate shell mosaics encoded with sentimental messages were produced in a local cottage industry and marketed to sailors and travelers, suggesting interesting parallels to the development of La Perouse shellwork. Although The Strong has an unparalleled collection of these sailors’ valentines, it does not, to my knowledge, have any documented examples of La Perouse shellwork.

By the 1930s La Perouse shellwork had developed into a significant tourist trade associated with concepts of Aboriginality and Australian identity, and the shellwork continues to be produced today as an example of contemporary Aboriginal art. In addition to representing one of the longest continuous forms of Aboriginal artistic production, it also encourages the maintenance of traditional knowledge of the coastal environment required for the collection of shells as well as promoting kinship practices through the intergenerational transmission of patterns unique to specific families. It would be fascinating to know whether or not the booties in The Strong museum were actually produced at La Perouse, something that I hope to determine through an analysis of the shell species used in their decoration. If, indeed, they were constructed in Australia, the booties would add a further global dimension to Margaret Strong’s extensive shellwork collection.