1. A Prelude to Forgetting

     Remembering the Dionne Quintuplets

         AMY WALLACE



Mebee you 'ear of Callendar-
Not on de wall - no, no:
I mean de town of Callendar
An' Monseur Doc Dafoe.

Mos' heverybody 'ear of Rome
An' Lunnon an' New York;
But no one 'ear of Callendar
Excep' one burd - de stork (MacDonald 1-8)


One block east of Main Street in Callander, Ontario, stands The Callander Bay Heritage Museum, in the former home of the once world-famous country doctor, Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe. The doctor lived in the home from 1914 until his death in 1943, nearly ten years after he arrived at the Dionne homestead to deliver the last two Dionne quintuplets. Thirty-five years after the death of Dr. Dafoe, through the initiative of the local barber Alex Dufresne, the township bought the doctor’s home with the intention of creating a museum for the community. The majority of the museum’s collection, which consists of artifacts pertaining to the town’s original railway station, the Red Cross nurses who worked in the area, and the logging and boating industries that were once crucial to the town’s existence, have been donated by community members. Dufresne, who in addition to his occupation as town barber also was an avid antique collector and local “history buff,” donated his entire early 20th century barbershop and many other artifacts to the museum. Perhaps the most interesting objects in the collection, however, are those that belonged to the Dionne quintuplets; these artifacts are indeed what visitors to the museum are most eager to see.

What would have been Dr. Dafoe’s dining room and library now house most of the museum’s Dionne quintuplet memorabilia and ephemera: five tiny, smocked, disembodied nightgowns hang limply from a wall like ghosts; a thick braid of dark “Quint hair” – it is unknown to which of the quintuplets it belonged – lies lifelessly in a glass display case; and growth charts decorate the walls, documenting every morsel of food that passed through each girl’s body. On hot summer days, the small dispensary where the doctor would wash up and mix medications still reeks of disinfectant, serving as a pungent reminder of the sterile environment in which Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie Dionne were brought up. Given a history steeped in exploitation, much of which is centred around the venue that was known as Quintland, which offered the public a chance to view the quintuplets play in a specially constructed observation gallery, the exhibition of artifacts such as the nightgowns, braid of hair, and growth charts raises ethical questions surrounding the museum’s display of Dionne quintuplet memorabilia and, consequently, the importance of local heritage. Is the legacy of Quintland as a whitewashed freak show simply perpetuated by Callander’s local museum? This essay will provide a brief history of the Dionne quintuplets and of the development of Quintland as context in which to analyze the popularity of the Dionnes and their subsequent exploitation. It will consider Quintland as the site where this exploitation was centred and compare it as an exhibition space to the present-day Callander Bay Heritage Museum. In doing so, it is suggested that in the museum’s construction of heritage, the successful transvaluation, through curatorial and display techniques, of its Dionne quintuplet collection is essential if it is to avoid casting the Dionnes in the same light under which they were displayed at Quintland.

Annette, Cécile, Émilie, Marie, and Yvonne Dionne were born in the early morning of May 28, 1934, in Corbeil, Ontario, to Elzire and Oliva Dionne, already the parents of five children (Brough 17). News of their birth travelled quickly, and it was only three days after the girls were born that their father, anticipating the financial burden that the quintuplets would be on the family, was persuaded by a representative of the Century of Progress Tour Bureau to sign a contract to put the newborns on exhibition in Chicago (Brough 38). In the end, the contract was revoked, but the event catalyzed a concern in the general public about possible future exploitation of the Dionnes. This concern resulted in “An Act for the Protection of the Dionne Quintuplets” and in the formation of a board of guardians that would take custody of the children (Brough 45). Shortly after the act was passed, the construction of a nursery began across the road from Oliva and Elzire’s homestead. This was the birth of Quintland.

Quintland consisted of a number of buildings erected around the fertile soils of the Dionne homestead:  the nursery, a staff house, a guard house, gift shops, souvenir stands, and the observation gallery, which was built in 1936 (Berton 15). Enclosing a large, grass play area, the observation gallery was a horseshoe-shaped corridor with windows on its inner walls. The glass of the windows was covered with screen as a sort of makeshift two-way mirror; the intention was that the screen would allow visitors to enjoy the spectacle of the Dionnes playing while the girls would be oblivious to the gaze of the hundreds who watched them. Despite this attempt, the Dionnes recall being aware of their spectatorship (Brough 62). Though no admission was charged to view the quints – a tactic that was used to quell public fear of their exploitation – the Dionnes were at one point an estimated $500,000,000 asset to the Province of Ontario as immense amounts of revenue came in from advertising endorsements, souvenirs, and other memorabilia that used their images (Brough 81). Tourists lined up by the thousands to get a glimpse of the Dionnes playing during either of the two regular “showings” of the girls each day (Brough 60). Of their popularity and money-making potential, Canadian journalist and historian Pierre Berton writes, “[t]hey saved an entire region from bankruptcy. They launched Northern Ontario’s flourishing tourist industry…. Between 1934 and 1943, close to three million persons made the long journey to the section of Lake Nipissing between North Bay and Callander that the travel brochures called ‘Quintland’” (12).

What precisely was it about the Dionne quintuplets that drew millions of people to small-town Northern Ontario? In her introduction to Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues that we must consider this question within the context of the sociohistorical ethos into which the quintuplets were born: “Although extraordinary bodily forms have always been acknowledged as atypical, the cultural resonances accorded them arise from the historical and intellectual moments in which these bodies are embedded” (2). Indeed, in the first chapter of The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama, Berton maintains, “it is not possible to trace the social history of the Thirties without reference to the Dionne quintuplets. The reverse is also true” (11). Having been born at the height of the Great Depression, the Dionnes quickly made headlines as a hopeful story among the many more discouraging news items; the tale of the Dionne quintuplets cannot be told with out referring to their birth as a miracle.

However, the quintuplets offered something more to the public that magnified their impact as miracles:  they were cute. Each girl was appointed, for instance, a unique personality: “Emilie may be called the happy-go-lucky member of this group, Annette the aggressive member, Yvonne the matriarch, Marie the baby, and Cecile the unknown quantity” (qtd. in Delhi). Images of the Quints seemed to grow exponentially in popular culture, and one article in Time magazine dubbed them “the world’s greatest newspicture story” (qtd. in Arnup). In her essay “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” Lori Merish discusses “cuteness” as an aesthetic that emerged in late nineteenth-century America that is now easily recognizable both by its appearance and by the emotional response it elicits (187). Merish argues that cuteness can function as an aesthetic marker for certain social distinctions such as Self and Other or “human” and “freak” (188). At the same time, it is a trait that has the ability to regulate social distinctions:  the cuteness of the pre-socialized infant manages his or her Otherness in a socialized, adult world (189). In the case of the Dionnes, however, the rarity of their multiplicity negates the possibility of any such management, and the quintuplets at once embody the “cute” and the “freak.” Shortly after the quintuplets were born, Elzire Dionne is reported to have asked her husband, “what will people say when they find out about this? They will say we are pigs” (Brough 25). Elzire’s anxiety about the possible reaction of her neighbours foreshadowed the wonder that the quintuplets, and the fecundity of their parents, would hold for people all over the world.

The observation gallery thus represented a space of human exhibition where the aesthetics of the “cute” and the “freak” overlapped, revealing the pull that such an intersection can exert on the human psyche. The existence of the observation gallery was justified by Dr. Dafoe and those in charge by arguing that “when you know people have driven thousands of miles for a glimpse of them, it is hard to see visitors go away disappointed” (Brough 48). The scientific community viewed the Dionnes as an opportunity to study unexplored aspects of childhood development. University of Toronto psychologist William E. Blatz led much of this research and believed the studies he conducted using the Dionnes to be of the utmost necessity: “never before in the history of human genetics have five identical children been born into circumstances where the opportunity not only may but must be provided for following their growth and development under controlled conditions” (qtd. in Delhi). These rationales mirror what cultural historian Tony Bennett outlines as one of the three purposes of a museum. Bennett writes, “rather than merely evoking wonder and surprise for the idly curious, the museum’s representations would so arrange and display natural and cultural artefacts as to secure the utilisation of these for the increase of knowledge and for the culture and enlightenment of the people” (Bennett 24). As it was apparent that Quintland’s thousands of daily visitors were indeed “the idly curious,” the men in charge of Quintland had to emphasize the social purpose that their enterprise performed: the general uplifting of spirits of the masses in a time of hardship as well as the advancement of scientific knowledge.

As the Dionnes entered adolescence, they began, as does everyone, to lose their “cuteness.” This loss coincided with the start of World War II, and the quintuplets ceased to make the newspaper headlines. Slowly, all evidence in Callander that the quintuplets and Quintland ever existed began to disappear. One of the last vestiges of this period in Callander’s past were cast iron silhouettes of the Dionnes that adorned the railing of a Main Street gift shop (what was once the midwives’ gift shop), and they were taken down a few years ago. The nursery and staff house of Quintland still stand, though the observation gallery, marked by a large expanse of grass, was disassembled many years ago. The only place where evidence exists of the Dionnes’ impact on the town is in the local museum. While the exhibition of artifacts pertaining to the Dionnes – such as the nightgowns, braid of “Quint hair,” and growth charts – has the potential to propagate the Dionnes’ former public identity as “freaks,” it is also a critical part of the town’s heritage. Does the importance of local heritage merit the exhibition of such artifacts?

New York University Professor of Performance Studies Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett provides a framework in which to consider the ethical questions that the exhibition of Dionne quint memorabilia for the construction of heritage raises. In her discussion of the ethical repercussions of the construction of heritage in relation to the plundering of cultural forms under the veil of “preservation,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes, “remembering is a prelude to forgetting, and the collecting of error an overture to its eradication” (159). She emphasizes that heritage, as a mode of cultural production located in the present, is not capable of reversing processes of deculturization, but that it can, and indeed must, produce something new (150). While the story of the Dionne quintuplets does not locate itself precisely within cross-cultural politics of display, the issues surrounding the Dionnes’ exploitation raise similar questions. The quintuplets maintain that when their original homestead was sold as a museum, their mother removed all of their baby things, as she would not have them be part of the sale (Brough 9). These objects are now being exhibited in museums throughout the area, contributing to the region’s notion of heritage. If the museums in the area, such as The Callander Bay Heritage Museum, wish to not stand as contemporary surrogates for Quintland, they must, in their moulding of heritage, acknowledge the transvaluation that Kirshenblatt-Gimblett articulates as essential in the construction of heritage and produce something new out of what remains of the Dionne story. This transvaluation can be achieved through display techniques, which Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes are never neutral (173). Display methods must be chosen to activate the Dionne collection so that it acquires meaning that, when viewed in another context, it would otherwise not possess (167). This strategy reflects art historian Svetlana Alpers’ notion of the museum effect, which involves the involuntary alteration of the visitor’s way of seeing upon entering a museum (27). It is through the distance between subject and object created by the museum that the visitor is able to “see” heritage. While the museum cannot reverse the exploitation that the quintuplets endured, it can take the remains of it and re-animate them to create something new.

In the far corner of The Callander Bay Heritage Museum, in the room that was Dr. Dafoe’s library, is an old guest book from the museum, opened to a page dated October 16, 1986. Approximately halfway down the page are the signatures of Annette, Yvonne, and Cécile Dionne. All of the sisters list their town as St. Bruno, Québec. These signatures represent a significant moment in the remaining Dionnes’ lives: an instance when they became simultaneously the gazer and the gazed. It also signifies the longevity of their career as “The Dionne Quintuplets”; even memorabilia dating from 1986 holds value to the Dionne quintuplet enthusiast. The memorialization of the Dionnes in The Callander Bay Heritage Museum is unique in that it occurred within the lifetimes of the three remaining Dionnes. This premature mythologizing constructs a geometry of refraction within the typical museum-gaze: when the Dionnes viewed their own images in the context of a museum, the desire motivating their gaze likely was not directed towards the objects (in turn, themselves) that they viewed, as it is for the average visitor to the site. Instead, we can imagine their curiosity being first directed towards the memorabilia with their images then outwards once more, beyond the screens of the observation gallery to the mind of the spectator observing them, in an impossible attempt to understand the wonder they held for the public. Though we see a contemporary resurgence of the exhibition of “freaks” in reality television with shows such as Little People, Big World and Jon & Kate plus 8, it will take time for the potential impact on the individuals featured in these shows to manifest itself. Meanwhile, the story of the Dionne quintuplets stands as a proven testament to what can happen when individual identities are sacrificed in the name of profit.



Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. “The Museum as a Way of Seeing.” In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. 25-32. Print.

Arnup, Katherine. “Raising the Dionne Quintuplets: Lessons for Modern Mothers.” Journal of Canadian Studies 29.4 (1994). Web. 6 Nov. 2008. <http://www.proquest.com. proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/>.

Bennett, Tony. “The Formation of the Museum.” In The Birth of the Museum. London: Routledge, 1995. 17-58. Print.

Berton, Pierre. The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart-Bantam, 1978. Print.

Brough, James, et al. "We Were Five": The Dionne Quintuplets' Story from Birth through Girlhood to Womanhood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965. Print.

Delhi, Kari. “Fictions of the Scientific Imagination: Researching the Dionne Quintuplets.” Journal of Canadian Studies 29.4 (1994). Web. 6 Nov. 2008 <http://www. proquest.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/>.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Destination Museum." In Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 131-76.

MacDonald, Wilson. “Quintrains of ‘Callender’.” Quintrains of “Callender”, and Other Poems. Toronto: S. J. Reginald Saunders, 1940. Print.

McKay, Ian. “Why Tell This Parable? Some Ethical Reflections on the Dionne Quintuplets.” Journal of Canadian Studies 29.4 (1994). Web. 6 Nov. 2008 <http://www. proquest.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca:2048/>.

Merish, Lori. "Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple." In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 185-203. Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. "Introduction: From Wonder to Error - A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity." In Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 1-19. Print.

Wright, Cynthia. “They Were Five: The Dionne Quintuplets Revisited.” Journal of Canadian Studies 29.4 (1994). Web. 17 Oct. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com.proxy1.lib.uwo. ca2048>.


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Amy Wallace is a fourth year student completing an Honours Specialization in Visual Art and a Major in Psychology. Her interest in heritage and Dionnology began after working for a summer at the Callander Bay Heritage Museum in her hometown.