Museum receives surprise gift of Dionne quintuplets memorabilia

·2 min read
A picture of the Dionne quintuplets when they were young women. (Supplied by the Callander Bay Heritage Museum  - image credit)
A picture of the Dionne quintuplets when they were young women. (Supplied by the Callander Bay Heritage Museum - image credit)

Thanks to a surprise donation, the Callander Bay Heritage Museum has added a significant number of pieces of Dionne quintuplets memorabilia to its collection.

"We're talking at least 300 pieces," said Natasha Wiatr, the museum's curator.

Wiatr said the museum, located near the quintuplets' birthplace of Corbeil, Ontario, received a call "out of the blue" from the state of Maine. A woman named Doris Fraser had recently passed away, at the age of 97, and she had an extensive collection of memorabilia. She was 11 when the famous Dionne quintuplets were born, and had followed them all of her life.

It was Fraser's family that contacted the museum for a pickup. They arranged to have someone cross the international border and meet with Wiatr and one other museum staff member in Barrie, Ontario.

"It was five big boxes worth of stuff," Wiatr said. "My car was not big enough."

Supplied by the Callander Bay Heritage Museum
Supplied by the Callander Bay Heritage Museum

The collection included photos of the quintuplets, newspaper clippings and dolls made in their image.

"At the time, they actually outsold the Shirley Temple dolls," she said. "That's how popular the Dionne dolls were."

For Wiatr, one of the most exciting additions to their collection was a set of rare Madame Alexander dolls. She said the museum's former curator, Carol Pretty, had long sought those dolls, but died a few months ago.

"I'm looking at these dolls and it was a really bittersweet feeling," Wiatr said. "We finally have them, but Carol didn't get the chance to see them."

Wiatr said many of the new pieces are already on display at the museum. What they want to do next, she said, is research the advertising and monetary exploitation that surrounded the Dionne quintuplets.

Exploited celebrities

The Dionne sisters -- Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie -- were the world's first surviving identical quintuplets, born to Elzire and Oliva Dionne, already parents of five, in a humble dwelling in the town of Corbeil, near North Bay on May 28, 1934.

When the sisters were babies, the Ontario government made them wards of the state. For the first nine years of their lives, they lived at a hospital that became a tourist site called Quintland.

Submitted by Natasha Wiatr
Submitted by Natasha Wiatr

Millions of people travelled to northern Ontario to see them at Quintland. About $500 million flowed into the province as a result of those visitors.

After a custody battle, they moved back with their parents. In 1998, the province formally apologized to the surviving siblings and a compensation settlement was agreed on.

Two of the sisters, Annette and Cécile, are still alive and celebrated their 87th birthdays earlier this year.

Nancy Fraser, Doris Fraser's daughter-in-law, told Radio-Canada she hopes her donation helps people better understand the Dionne quintuplets' story.

"I hope there will be renewed interest in the Dionne quintuplets and what they went through," she said.

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