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Museum of Love : A Collection of Valentines That Runs the Gamut of Romance

January 27, 1987|PATRICK MOTT

Blest be the day when first I saw

My Mary in the Grove;

I gaz'd with reverential awe,

My bosom glowed with love.

--A valentine sent from a man to his sweetheart in Surrey, England, circa 1820

You bought the License and the Ring

And then his praise began to sing,

But when he saw you, lightly drest,

He gladly took the first train West.

--A valentine sent by a man to a woman friend, circa 1910

The course of true love never runs straight, and few people know this as well as Evalene Pulati, Orange County's resident expert on the mushy couplet, the lyrical love verse and the occasional poison pen of disdain and jealousy.

Pulati, who lives in Santa Ana, is the president of the National Valentine Collector's Assn., an organization of about 350 collectors, mostly from the United States, who specialize in amassing piles of rare or unique valentines. Pulati's own collection numbers nearly 10,000, she says, and includes examples of the art ranging from handmade cards produced around 1820 to elaborate three-dimensional valentines from the 1890s to comic and sometimes caustic valentines produced between 1840 to 1920.

Nearly 100 valentines from Pulati's collection are on display in the Crystal Court of South Coast Plaza.

"I'm like the valentine museum, I guess," she said. "Some of them are very hard to find--for everyone but me."

Pulati has established such a reputation as a collector that people often send her valuable or rare valentines because they have heard that her home has become a sort of clearinghouse for the cards, she says.

Her valentine collection began about 1965 when she opened a collectors' shop specializing in what she calls "paper Americana." Frequently scouts from around the country would obtain for her antique scrapbooks, which often contained valentine cards. She became intrigued and the collection began to grow.

She founded the National Valentine Collector's Assn. in 1977. However, the real deluge of attention didn't begin until late 1982, when she was listed as a reference in a nationally distributed book about how to parlay seemingly insignificant items into cash. The book was reviewed in three women's magazines and her name and specialty were listed.

"My mailman went crazy," she said. "I was getting 50 and 60 letters a day. People were sending valentines from all over."

Many valentines would be in sorry shape and be worth nothing, she says. Others, however, turned out to be true collector's items. While it is possible to obtain a well-preserved 100-year-old valentine for less than $10, Pulati says, she has heard of others being sold at auction for as much as $14,000.

Today her home is a repository for sentimentality. But while love may be eternal, Pulati knows that the method of expressing it, at least over the last century and a half, has changed significantly.

From the 1820s to about the 1870s, when handmade and handwritten valentines were the rule, the words may have been mawkish, but the intent was often quite serious, says Pulati.

"It was a serious proposal of marriage in those days, usually," she said.

The verse at the top of this story, for instance, is taken from Pulati's rarest valentine, handmade and handwritten by a man to his sweetheart in Reigate, Surrey, England--a Miss Westwood. The fourth verse appears to be the clincher:

O! say then can I e'er aspire

To call this beauty mine?

And will she condescend to smile

Upon her Valentine?

He identified himself only as "your truly affectionate lover."

"It was usually known who the person was," Pulati said.

While the early valentines usually were exchanged only between spouses or lovers, they found favor between relatives and friends when they began to be mass-produced at about the middle of the 19th century, says Pulati.

One example is a tiny card trimmed in lace from 1870:

When to ladyhood

My friend, you grow,

Pray don't forget

Your little beau.

Another, produced during the Civil War era, reads, simply, "Don't fear to trust me."

About the same time, however, the mean-spirited valentine also was in vogue, says Pulati. They often depicted the target of the venom in broad caricature and the insulting rhymes (such as the second verse at the top of this story) were usually not at all ambiguous, says Pulati.

One referred to a woman as an "old beet."

"What happened sometimes in England in the 1850s and 1860s," said Pulati, "was that if two men were competing for the same woman, one of them would send one of those nasty ones without a stamp--you could do that in those days--with the other man's name on it. It would arrive with postage due."

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