In A Nutshell
In the 1930s, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada was the nursery of the Dionne quintuplets. Born at a time when giving birth to five babies at one time was unheard of, the government took the girls from their parents and raised them until they were nine years old. More than three million people (spending a collective total of around $500 million) came to see them, and by the time they were released back into the custody of their parents, not only did those parents not really seem to want them, but they grew up sad, lonely, and poorly adjusted to life in the real world.
The Whole Bushel
Today, we live in an age of in vitro fertilization and fertility clinics, but in the 1930s, it was very, very different. Twins were miraculous enough, especially if they survived. When a set of five babies was born to a woman in Corbeil, Ontario, the world had seen nothing like it.
The girls weighed only about 1 kilogram (2 lb) each, and they were born about two months early. When they survived against all odds—with the help of women who donated breast milk and Canadian Red Cross nurses—they became a world sensation. They were miracle babies, and during the era of depression and repression, they were a symbol of hope.
Sounds great, at first, but it wasn’t long before things got dark.
The girls (named Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie, and Yvonne) attracted the attention of the government when they were about four months old. Declaring that their parents weren’t capable of caring for five babies, they removed the girls to a house near the hospital they had been born at. There, they were under the supervision and care of a small army of nurses and doctors, constantly subjected to scientific scrutiny.
Doctors noted things like the girls’ tendency to pair off with each other; there were two sets of children that had been born in the same amniotic sac; these girls were closer to each other. The fifth didn’t have such a partner, and doctors suspected that there had been a sixth baby that had been miscarried. They took note of things like physical similarities and personality differences, and they were turned into a major tourist attraction.
Between 1934 and 1943, about three million people went to peer through the glass window and into the nursery where the girls were being raised. Sometimes, the girls were taken out, dressed alike, and introduced to visitors. Even though their parents lived across the street, they almost never went home. Their father, Oliva, sold postcards and merchandise, while pictures of them were licensed to companies selling everything from oatmeal to dish soap. A series of dolls were made based on their likenesses, fan letters kept the world updated on their growth and development, and holiday pictures were taken and run in papers across the world.
The family and the town started raking in the money. During the time they were on display, it’s estimated that they brought about $500 million in tourist dollars into Ontario.
They remained on display until they were nine years old, when they were returned to their parents. As they grew up, things didn’t go well. As adults, they remember bitter parents who often told them that life had been better before they had been born. Later, they would write a book about their experiences growing up, for the first time sharing that they had been abused by their father. The money that had been raised on their exhibition was mostly gone by the time they were entitled to their trust fund, and by that time, they were so sheltered that they didn’t know the difference between a nickel and a quarter anyway.
All five distanced themselves from their family as soon as they could. Emilie, who had chosen to become a nun, died in 1954 after suffering a seizure. Marie died in 1970, after suffering from a blood clot. Yvonne died in 2001. Even though three of the sisters married and had children of their own, they also continued to have rather unhappy lives, haunted by their early, formative years growing up behind a glass wall, on display for millions.