Friday, May 28, 2010
The Dionne quintuplets
The Dionne quintuplets (born May 28, 1934) are the first quintuplets known to survive their infancy. They are the only female identical set of five ever recorded. The sisters were born just outside Callander, Ontario, Canada near the village of Corbeil.
The Dionne girls were born two months premature. After four months with their family, they were made wards of the King for the next nine years under the Dionne Quintuplets' Guardianship Act, 1935. The government and those around them began to profit by making them a significant tourist attraction in Ontario.
The family, headed by father Oliva and mother Elzire Dionne, married on September 15, 1926. They lived just outside of Corbeil, in a farmhouse in unregistered territory. Oliva, through his father, was a descendant of Zacharie Cloutier (via Louise Cloutier 1632–1699, Charlotte Mignault 1669–1747, and Antoine Dionne 1706–1807). The Dionnes were a farming family with five previous children named Ernest (b. 1926), Rose Marie (b. 1928), Therese (b. 1929), Daniel (b. 1932), and Pauline (b. 1933), who was only eleven months older than the quints. A sixth, son Léo (b. 1930), died of pneumonia shortly after birth.
The Dionnes also had 3 sons after the quintuplets. Oliva Jr. (b. 1936), Victor (b. 1938), and Claude (b. ca. 1940).
Four months after the birth of the sisters, the Ontario government intervened and, in an unprecedented fashion, found the parents to be unfit for the quintuplets, and custody of the five babies was withdrawn from their parents by the Ontario government of Mitchell Hepburn in 1935, originally for a guardianship of two years. Although Oliva Dionne remained part of the guardianship, they were put under the guidance of Dr. Dafoe and two other guardians. The stated reason for removing the quintuplets from their parents' legal custody was to ensure their survival into healthy toddlers. The government realized the massive interest in the sisters and proceeded to engender a tourist industry around them. The girls were made wards of the provincial crown, planned until they reached the age of 18.
Across the road from their birthplace, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built for the five girls and their new caregivers. The girls were moved from the farmhouse to this nursery at the end of September. The compound had an outdoor playground designed to be a public observation area. It was surrounded by a covered arcade that allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens. The facility was funded by a Red Cross fundraiser. It was a nine-room nursery with a staff house nearby. The staff house held the three nurses and the three policemen in charge of guarding them. A housekeeper and two maids lived in the main building with the quintuplets. The buildings were surrounded by a seven foot barbed wire fence. The sisters were brought to play there for thirty minutes two or three times a day. They were constantly being tested, studied, and examined with tedious records taken of everything. The Dionne sisters, while living at the compound, had a somewhat rigid lifestyle. They were not required to participate in chores. They were privately tutored in the same building where they lived. Cared for primarily by nurses, the children had limited exposure to the world outside the boundaries of the compound except for the daily rounds of tourists, who, from the sisters' point of view, were generally heard but not seen. They also had occasional contact with their parents and siblings across the road. Every morning they dressed together in a big bathroom, had doses of orange juice and cod-liver oil, and then went to have their hair curled. They said a prayer before breakfast, a gong was sounded, and they ate breakfast in the dining room. After thirty minutes, they had to clear the table, even if they weren't done. Then they went and played in the sunroom for thirty minutes, took a fifteen minute break, and at nine o'clock had their morning inspection with Dr. Dafoe. Every month they had a different timetable of activities. They bathed every day before dinner and put on their pajamas. Dinner was served at precisely six o'clock. Then they went into the quiet playroom to say their evening prayers. Each girl had a color and a symbol to mark what was hers. Annette's color was red with a maple leaf, Cecile's color was green and her design a turkey, Emilie had white and a tulip, while Marie had blue and a teddy bear and Yvonne had pink and a bluebird.
Approximately 6,000 people per day visited the observation gallery that surrounded an outdoor playground to view the Dionne sisters. Ample parking was provided and almost 3,000,000 people walked through the gallery between 1936 and 1943. Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop and a concession store opposite the nursery and the area acquired the name "Quintland". The souvenirs pictured the five sisters. There were autographs and framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, dolls, and much more at this shop. Oliva Dionne also sold stones from the Dionne farm for $0.50 that were supposed to have some magical power of fertility. Midwives Madam LeGros and Madame LeBelle opened their own souvenir and dining stand. In 1934, the Quintuplets brought in about $1 million, and they attracted in total about $51 million of tourist revenue to Ontario. Quintland became Ontario's biggest tourist attraction of the era, at the time surpassing the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It was only rivaled by Radio City, Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg in the United States. Hollywood stars who came to Callander to visit the Quints included Clark Gable, James Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, and Mae West. Amelia Earhart also visited Callander just six weeks before her ill-fated flight in 1937.
The sisters, and their likenesses and images, along with Dr. Dafoe, were used to publicize commercial products such as Karo corn syrup and Quaker Oats among many of other popular brands. They increased the sales of condensed milk, toothpaste, disinfectant, and many other products through their promotions. They starred in four Hollywood films:
The Country Doctor (1936)
Five of a Kind (1938)
In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house within walking distance of Quintland. The yellow brick, 20-room mansion was paid for out of the Quintuplets' fund. The home had many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water. The mansion was nicknamed "The Big House." The building is now a retirement home.
The nursery was eventually converted into an accredited school house where the sisters finished their secondary education along with ten girls from the area that were chosen to attend. Years after, it was used by the Recluses of Corbeil as a convent.
The quintuplets became emotionally closest to their sister, Pauline. While the parents claimed they wished to integrate the quintuplets into the family, the sisters frequently traveled to perform at various functions, still all dressed the same. According to the accounts of the surviving sisters, the parents often treated them at home as a five-part unit, and frequently lectured them about the trouble they had caused the family by existing. They were sometimes denied privileges the other children received, and were more strictly disciplined and punished. They also received a heavier share of the house- and farmwork. They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, expensive food and cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned.
In particular, the father was resentful and suspicious of outsiders for having lost custody of his children.