The Postcard Time Machine: The Dionne’s Miracle Quintuplets

The five rosy-cheeked, curly-haired quints, playing like other little girls, brought smiles to tired hearts during the Great Depression. Postcard #4 is from the numbered set of 49 black-and-whites that make up the most common quint cards. Many collect them by number. Generally, $10-$15 is an expected price in excellent condition (though often seen online for twice that price), the lower numbers can be readily found at shows, on Internet auctions and postcard sales sites.

On May 28, 1934 a young farm wife in the back woods of northern Ontario, Canada, gave birth to identical quintuplets two months prematurely. From oldest to youngest, Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie would bring joy and lift spirits during the years of the Great Depression, save northern Ontario’s economy, appear in movies and newsreels, and sell scores of products, including Karo Syrup and Quaker Oats.

The girls, five of the 14 children of Elzire and Oliva Dionne, were the first quintuplets in the world to survive infancy. Known as the “miracle babies,” they were removed from their family by the government (ironically, to be saved from exploitation by being exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair) and became Canada’s largest tourist attraction.

Dionne Quints collectibles have been popular since the 1930s. Of course, my focus here is on postcards, but I also have pocket mirrors, books, booklets, paper dolls and advertising. Today’s online search revealed a collector’s offering consisting of several magazines, dolls, perfume bottles, paintings, spoons, a few postcards, newspaper clippings and booklets, with an opening bid of $1,500.

After living with their family for just four months, the girls were made wards of the provincial Crown until the age of 18 under a special guardianship act. Postcards showing them with their family are among the rarest; one similar to this was recently listed online with a starting bid of $50.

Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, a country doctor of very modest means, delivered the babies with the help of two midwives—Aunt Donalda and Madame Benoit Lebel—who were called by Oliva Dionne in the middle of the night when Elzire went into early labor. Predictably then, when the government removed the girls from their parents, they were placed in the primary care of Dr. Dafoe.

Within six months Dafoe became the world’s best known and most popular doctor—his every word seemed to make it to print, and he was courted by the Liggett drugstore chain, which began the commercial process that made Dr. Dafoe a wealthy man. He was polite, modest, patient and self-effacing, though he could be gruff and blunt during interviews.

Dr. Dafoe appears on many postcards with the Dionne Quints. This card is part of a small hand-colored set, not as sharp as the black-and- whites, but much harder to find. These elusive cards range from $15-$25.

When the government realized that the general public was hugely interested in the girls, it built a tourist industry around them. Across the road from their birthplace in Callander, the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery was built with money raised by a Red Cross fundraiser, and the sisters were moved there when they were just infants. It was designed to allow large numbers of visitors to see them and was surrounded by a seven-foot barbed-wire fence.

The public could watch the quintuplets from behind mesh screens along a covered arcade, and the girls said they could see amorphous grey shadows moving around them. The compound had an outdoor playground and swimming pool, a nine-room nursery—where the quints lived with a housekeeper and two maids—and a nearby staff house for the three nurses and three policemen who guarded the five little treasures.

Postcards in this set with numbers higher than 30 are hard to find, since they show the girls beyond their cutest ages. This view, #44, showing them eating ice cream cones, is plenty cute though! These higher-numbered cards range from $20-$30.

Every morning the girls got dressed together in a big bathroom, had their doses of orange juice and cod-liver oil, and went to have their hair curled. They said a prayer, a bell was rung and they had 30 minutes to eat breakfast in the dining room. Then they played in the sunroom for half an hour and at 9 a.m. were inspected by Dr. Dafoe. Their schedule of activities varied monthly, but they took their baths every day before dinner, put on their pajamas and had dinner at 6 p.m.

Each of the quints had a color and a symbol to identify her belongings: Annette’s were red and a maple leaf; Cecile’s were green and a turkey; Emilie’s white and a tulip; Marie’s blue and a teddy bear; and Yvonne’s pink and a bluebird.

Quintland hosted more than 3 million visitors and the quints brought Ontario more than $500 million in revenue. Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop opposite the nursery selling autographs, photos, spoons, cups, plates, postcards, books and fertility stones from the Dionne farm. The midwives had a souvenir and food concession. Postcards like this, about the quints but not picturing them, can be found in the $5 range. They include cards of the midwives, the basket the girls were kept in at birth, and views of Quintland.

The five sisters were constantly studied, tested and examined, and records were kept of everything. Their lives were controlled and rigid during the nine years they lived at Quintland. Privately tutored, and cared for mostly by nurses, they had very limited exposure to the world, with just a few visits to their birth family across the road.

Although their upbringing was seen as glamorous and lacking no luxury, their 1963 autobiography, “We Were Five,” speaks of their isolation, with Cecile saying they were “a carnival set in the middle of nowhere.”

This hard-to-find #45 could be expected to sell in the $25-$35 range. Every postcard of the quints identified them by name below their images. If the candle-count is correct, this is their seventh birthday.

The Dionne family lived across the street from Quintland but felt unwelcome there and didn’t visit often. “We didn’t know each other,” Cecile recalled. So, when the quints were returned to their family at age 9 after a bitter custody suit, their new home was “the saddest home we ever knew.”

Their parting from Dr. Dafoe was strained—when he stretched out his hand to say goodbye, none of the girls took it. He never saw the quints again, dying suddenly of pneumonia in 1943.

At home, the girls felt that their mother was unloving and their father very controlling. They were constantly told, “We were better off before you were born, and we’d be better off without you now.” They were often treated as one entity, were punished more frequently than the other children and were assigned more chores, including serving other family members.

I’ve been collecting Dionne Quints postcards for more than 30 years and have only seen this postcard once (when I snapped it up for my collection). This rare find shows Oliva and Elzire Dionne with 12 of their children. They had three sons after the quints were born.

The Dionne’s modern 20-room mansion was paid for by the quints’ fund. Called “The Big House,” it’s now a retirement home. The nursery was converted to a school where the sisters finished high school with 10 local girls chosen to attend; it later became a convent. At one time, there were two bears tied up in the yard inside the home’s high wire fence, for protection. The quints became very shy, preferring to go upstairs to their room when company came. They had to walk separately when they left the house for their own protection, to avoid being mobbed by townspeople and tourists.

When they turned 18, the Dionne sisters left home and broke off contact with their family. One million dollars had been put in a trust fund for them, but when they turned 21 and became eligible to receive the money, only $800,000 was left. Their sheltered life hadn’t prepared them for the real world, and their funds eventually ran out.

Card #39 shows the girls looking more somber and grown-up than in the more common postcards. Valued at $15.

Emilie became a nun, and died of a seizure at age 20 after a history of epilepsy. Annette and Cecile both got married and had children, but later divorced. Marie, mother of two daughters, died of a blood clot at age 35. Yvonne died of cancer at age 67 after working as a librarian.

When Annette, Cecile and Yvonne reached their sixties, they shared a home near Montreal on a combined income of $746 a month. In 1998 they petitioned the Canadian government for compensation for their exploitation, and after a public outcry they received a $4-million settlement. Annette (who studied literature before her marriage) and Cecile (a former nurse) still live together in Canada.

In 1997, when the McCaugheys gave birth to the world’s first surviving septuplets, the sisters wrote them a letter via Time magazine. “If we emerge momentarily from the privacy we have sought all our adult lives, it is only to send a message to the McCaughey family,” they wrote. “We three would like you to know we feel a natural affinity and tenderness for your children. We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products. We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose.”

Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.

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