To Evalene Pulati, every day is Valentine's Day.
As president and founder of the National Valentines Collectors Assn. in Santa Ana,Pulati receives valentines in her mailbox all year long.
Many cards come from strangers who wish to leave their long-treasured valentines in caring hands. Others come from association members who want to sell their valentines for cash. Because of this, Pulati has more Cupids than she cares to count.
Few appreciate a pretty valentine as much as Pulati. A self-described hopeless romantic, she still opens each card to read the verses and imagines "what the two people were like who exchanged those sentiments."
"I love the graphics and I love the poetry," she says.
She's smitten with old valentines, which were miniature monuments of love, finely crafted out of paper. Cards dating from the early 1900s feature elaborate pop-up scenes with flying cherubs and turtledoves, ornate carriages draped in flowers and plenty of lace gingerbread.
"They were meant to stand out on the mantel in the parlor," Pulati says.
One card from 1922 folds out into a tall sailing ship bedecked in forget-me-nots that stands almost a foot high, with cherubs and turtledoves attached to the card by paper tabs so they appear to fly.
Another, from 1918, opens up into a farm scene, complete with a silo made of paper honeycomb and a garden with an angel reaping a harvest of hearts. In a 1929 card, a boy fishes off a bridge using a heart as bait, a swirl of cherubs gazing down on him from atop a flower-covered gazebo.
Pulati's oldest valentine dates from 1797. One of her cards, from the 1800s, has silver painted on the lace edges that actually tarnishes.
"You can see why people saved them," she says. "Nowadays you don't see things like this."
Pulati's love affair with valentines began during childhood. She paints a romantic picture of herself growing up on an Iowa farm, the only girl among seven brothers. Her parents, worried that their daughter would turn into a tomboy, protected her from the harsher aspects of farm life.
"I still don't know how to milk a cow," Pulati says.
She spent much of her time in her room, poring over treasures she collected in an old tea chest where she kept her first valentines.
"I went to a one-room schoolhouse with 40 or 50 other children, and we all exchanged valentines," she says.
She began collecting the cards in earnest about 30 years ago.
In 1967, she opened a shop in Santa Ana specializing in paper Americana, which closed five Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.
While talking to her customers, she found there was no organization of valentine collectors, so in 1977 she formed one. The group has since grown to 500 members.
Pulati shares her knowledge of valentines with the collectors through a quarterly newsletter. She also holds members-only auctions of valentines.
To educate the public about the cards, the group displays its collections at museums and malls. Highlights from Pulati's personal collection can be seen at Crystal Court at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa through Feb. 15. She saw seven of her cards come to life at the 1989 Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.
Pulati adds to her collection by attending garage sales, auctions and estate sales.
"You can still find a 100-year-old valentine for $2 to $3, or $100 for a big, fancy one."
She keeps most of her cards in safety deposit boxes, where they won't be exposed to damaging sunlight, wood, insects or cardboard.
Owning the leftovers of love long gone, of flames extinguished, has given Pulati a unique philosophical view: "As people, we'll eventually be gone," she says. "(But) our cards will be around a long time after us."