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The sketch art of Sister Maria Innocentia began to appear on in the 1930s in Germany and Switzerland, mostly pastoral drawings of children. The Swiss art publisher Ars Sacra was involved in the early popularization of the art on postcards. Hummel's "art cards" became popular throughout Germany, catching the eye of Franz Goebel, porcelain maker and head of W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik. Goebel acquired rights to turn Hummel's drawing into figurines, producing the first line in 1935. Goebel was one of many mid-size porcelain firms competing in the US market and Franz Goebel´s knack for novelty marketing caused the figurines to become popular in the US during the 1930s. The base for the popularity was among German immigrants on the East Coast.
After the end of World War II, the popularity of Hummel figurines grew as American soldiers stationed in West Germany began sending the figurines home as gifts. Nostalgia associated with the figurines and the U.S. soldiers buying them led to Hummel figurines becoming a popular collector's item. Popularity increased even more when the figurines were sold by the Army PX system. A vibrant speculator market in Hummel figurines developed and in the 1970s, Hummel figurines skyrocketed in price, though today most sell for less than $50. M.I. Hummel collector plates made by Goebel and sold by the Goebel Collectors Club, were a prominent item in the Bradford Exchange, the leading supplier of collectible plates. Today, Hummel figurines are produced by Manufaktur Rödental and their popularity as collector's items remain.
Many books and price guides have been published about Hummel figurines. Some of these works supported the secondary market interest of collector speculators; The No. 1 Price Guide to M.I. Hummel, written by Robert L. Miller, is generally regarded as the definitive price guide.
Donald Stephens, longtime mayor of Rosemont, Illinois, was a prolific collector of Hummel figurines. In 1984, Stephens donated his collection to the Village of Rosemont to be displayed in a museum. The Donald E. Stephens Museum of Hummels opened in its current location in Rosemont on March 13, 2011. The museum purports to be the largest collection of Hummel figurines in the world.
Hummel figurines have been referenced multiple times in popular culture. On the television series Seinfeld in the episode "The Pony Remark", there is a reference to Jerry's auntie's Hummel collection and in Glee, the character "Kurt Hummel" is named for the Hummel figurines. On the television series Gilmore Girls, a Hummel collection of Kyle's mother is broken during the fight between Dean and Jess (season 3, episode 20). In the web series Ask That Guy With The Glasses, Hummel figures are implied to be satanic. In the 2004 comedy film Team America: World Police, Kim Jong-il can be seen walking past his collection of Hummel figurines when he sings "I'm So Ronery." In a 2011 episode of "The Mentalist," human behavioral expert (and the titular "mentalist") Patrick Jane is surprised to learn "supercop" J.J. Laroche, a CBI chief, collects Hummel figurines when Jane visits Laroche's home for the first time. The Simpsons' sixteenth season episode "Home Away From Homer" reveals that Ned Flanders has a sizable collection of "Humble" figurines, a parody of Hummels.