How Dionne Quintuplet collectibles became museum pieces

When Yvonne, Émilie, Marie, Annette, and Cécile Dionne were born in 1934, they were an immediate global sensation. At this museum in North Bay, you can learn about their life and legacy
By Claude Sharma - Published on May 28, 2019
Dionne quintuplets
Ontario premier Mitchell Hepburn poses with the Dionne quintuplets. (Library and Archives Canada/collectionscanada.gc.ca)

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Carol Fraser packed some of her most prized possessions into boxes — spoons, bowls, treasured photographs, doll furniture, eight sets of dolls. Then she shipped it roughly 4,400 kilometres from her home near Sacramento to North Bay. Altogether, Fraser estimates, the cargo was worth roughly US$20,000. She decided to give the collection a new home in Ontario because it involves memorabilia of a particular kind: it’s all related to the Dionne Quintuplets. Yesterday, it arrived in North Bay, where it will form part of the grand reopening of the Dionne Quints Museum.

“I remember, one Christmas, my mother gave me two hankies, and she said she paid more for those than she had ever paid for a dress,” says Fraser, 82, originally from Springhill, Nova Scotia.

Born in 1934, near the village of Corbeil, Yvonne, Émilie, Marie, Annette, and Cécile Dionne became global sensations almost immediately. The first recorded set of quintuplets, the children were considered a medical marvel; some, including Fraser, saw them as a sign of hope during the Great Depression.

That’s why she felt moved to send her collection to North Bay. The surviving sisters, Annette and Cécile, turn 85 on May 28, and the Dionne Quints Heritage Board is preparing to reopen the museum, which has been shuttered since 2015. The museum, housed in the Dionnes’ childhood home, will be open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, beginning mid-June.  

Through items such as dresses, posters, an incubator, the museum highlights the feverish interest that surrounded the five — an interest that fuelled exploitation. Soon after they were born, says Carlo Tarini, the sisters’ spokesperson, the Dionnes’ father signed a contract to have them exhibited at the 1934 World’s Fair, in Chicago. In response, premier Mitchell Hepburn declared the girls wards of the state, citing health and protection concerns.

Dionne quintuplets house
The Dionne Quints Museum, now located near the North Bay waterfront, will be reopening in mid-June. (Ed Valenti)

Months later, though, they were put on public display in Corbeil in a live exhibition known as “Quintland.” It became an unprecedented tourist attraction, drawing more than 3 million visitors between 1934 and 1943: roughly half a billion dollars went straight to the province. “It is a certainty they were the most famous children in the world,” Tarini told TVO.org via email. “But another sad certainty is that these children did not receive sufficient affection.” In 1998, the Ontario government paid the then three still-living sisters $4 million in reparations for their mistreatment.

The Dionnes also proved an economic boon for the region. Ed Valenti, chair of the Dionne Quints Heritage Board, says that the money they generated helped grow the region throughout the Depression and allowed for such infrastructure projects as roads and highways. They were also, he notes, “instrumental in vaccinations.” Because they were born prematurely, the Dionnes had to receive a number of shots, he says, “and that was very important because a lot of children got vaccinated because the Quints did.”

The museum has gone through various moves and changes over the years. In 1960, the home was bought by private businessmen and moved from Corbeil to North Bay. In 1985, it was sold to the City of North Bay and relocated once again, this time within the city. The museum was eventually managed by the North Bay Chamber of Commerce, but, in 2015, the chamber relocated to the city’s downtown and halted operations. The land was sold to a developer, and there was some discussion that the city would sell the museum to the nearby town of Strong. But, in April of 2017, after pleas from the two surviving sisters and the launch of a local grassroots campaign, city council voted to relocate the site to North Bay’s waterfront.

The board aims to raise $100,000 over the next year to expand and beautify the museum: it hopes to install 2,100 square feet of interlocking stone around the outside of the building, add six storytelling display panels, and plant one spruce tree for each sister. The board will also be seeking funding support from the provincial and federal governments.

With additional staff and resources in place, Valenti hopes that the museum will be able to tell stories that are more representative of the sisters’ experience. “We’ve realized one of the things we’re trying to do is to correct history as we go along,” Valenti says. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.” For example, according to Annette and Cécile, although their parents and doctor received much of the focus, it was midwives and nurses who played a major role in their early life. “The five nurses who raised us were more important in our childhood than our parents, whom we rarely saw during the nine and a half years when we were put on display at Quintland,” the sisters said via email through Tarini. “These nurses were appointed by the government’s trustees and paid with money we earned as celebrity spokeschildren. When we naturally became attached to these women, some were let go, apparently by Dr. Dafoe.”

Annette and Cécile, who now live in the Montreal area, say that they appreciate the generosity and support of such longtime admirers as Fraser, and they’re happy to that their birth home will once again be open to public. “The Museum’s survival means that new generations of Canadians will be able to learn from the social experiment we were part of,” they wrote. “There are several life lessons for parents, children and of course politicians to be learned from examining our childhood years.”

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