Long before Cabbage Patch Dolls or Beanie Babies, there were Hummel figurines.
And today, years after the doll fads lost steam, the handmade ceramic collectibles are still going strong. There's ample proof at the M.I. Hummel Club's biennial North American convention in Adam's Mark hotel, where 657 delegates are celebrating the 100th birthday of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, the Franciscan nun whose paintings of cherubic Bavarian schoolchildren inspired the intricate figurines.
Arrayed around the Grand Ballroom are birthday cards from club members to Sister Maria -- many of them artistic in their own right -- collections of postcards based on her drawings and, of course, the tiny ornamental figures. In the convention shop upstairs, they range in price from $55 to $6,750.
They have been handmade in Germany since 1935, after Franz Goebel discovered the postcards and got permission from the convent of Siessen to bring them to ceramic life. They soon gained a following in Europe, but interest spiked when American soldiers began bringing them home as gifts after World War II.
The North American Hummel Club, founded 33 years ago and based in Pennington, N.J., has 70,000 members, said Director Carrie Kulak. Most are of the Greatest Generation, meaning they are getting up in years, so there is emphasis on recruiting younger people, she added. "There's some interest, but not as much as we'd like."
The Goebel company stopped production last October -- a probable sign of the times -- but in February an investor group stepped in and resumed the line under the name Manufaktur Rodental GmbH. Efforts to broaden the appeal include contemporary versions of the figurines, and the addition of saints and cartoon figures such as Bart Simpson and Snoopy. But diversity can only take the Hummel line so far, Kulak said. "You'll never see a Hummel child carrying an I-Pod. Joan Ostroff of New York City, who started the club as an information clearinghouse for collectors in 1974, retired in 1994 and returned 10 years later as Hummel "ambassador," believes the enthusiasm will never really go away. "There is an underlying factor -- love," Ostroff said. "These figures came from the heart of a woman who really loved children, and were made by artisans who did beautiful work with their hands."
"Many collect pieces that are commemorative of something that happened in their lives, to them or their children."
The highlight of the four-day convention will be Saturday's birthday dinner honoring Sister Maria, who died of tuberculosis in 1946. A special guest, Sister Claudia-Marie Mueller of the Siessen convent, is coming to cut the cake.
Proceeds from many convention activities will be donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Western New York.