The Dionne Quintuplets, five tiny babies delivered prematurely to a French-Canadian mother in 1934, brought a much-needed story of hope and survival to the world during the Great Depression. Each baby was small enough to fit into one hand, and they weighed a combined total of merely 14 pounds. They weren’t expected to live, but the children surprisingly grew into beautiful girls as the world watched in amazement.
Newspapers and magazines featured the babies. Films were made telling their story. And like many pop culture events capturing the hearts and attention of the public, the birth and growth of these remarkable children spurred a slew of Dionne quints merchandise featuring Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie. Collectors still seek these items today, including doll sets made by the Madame Alexander Doll Company.
A Hopeful Story Takes a Sad Turn
The world was clearly rooting for these special children, but the story behind the "success" of the Dionne Quintuplets in the 1930s and '40s conveys a dark side the cute dolls and sweet expressions seen on collectibles do not reveal. According to PBS.org, the five girls grew up in an environment where they were exploited, abused, and emotionally neglected by their immediate family.
Their father, in fact, signed a contract to have the babies displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair when they were still infants. This prompted the Canadian government to take custody of the girls and, both ironically and quite disturbingly by today’s standards, their living quarters became a huge tourist attraction as they were kept as wards of the state. The "Quintland" hospital compound where the babies were raised early on brought in approximately three million tourists between 1934 and 1943.
At first, the babies were brought out by nurses one at a time for onlookers to see. As they grew, rather than being reared amid wealth and adoration as the media often portrayed their upbringing, they were actually put on display—much like animals in a zoo—behind mesh-covered glass away from their family. The public could view the children as they played for free, yet the products sold at the hospital made millions making the proposition of keeping the girls there too tempting to resist.
Their parents lived just across the street, but they rarely visited after being made to feel unwelcome. When the girls reached the age of 9, they rejoined their family. They were treated poorly by their parents who often conveyed to the girls that they would have been better off without them.
Sadly, very little of the money made on Dionne Quints products sold commemorating the siblings was set aside for the girls. They later stated in a book reflecting on their life that multiple births "should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products."
Valuing Dionne Quints Memorabilia
As shown in the photo above, there were many items made with the adorable faces of the Quints adorning them. Some were sold like those purchased by visitors at Quintland, others were given away by businesses such as florists, funeral homes, and grocery stores as promotional items. The lot of items illustrating this article, including a set of dolls with original swing and accessories and a number of paper items, sold for $862.50 (not including buyer’s premium) at Morphy Auctions in 2010.
Madame Alexander, known as Alexander Doll Company in the 1930s, made numerous doll sets fashioned after the girls ranging from babies to toddlers. Those with the original props, clothing, and accessories, especially if they feature the names of each baby, sell well and for good money when in very good to excellent condition. Expect to pay $500–1,500 or so to add a set to a collection, depending on the rarity and completeness of the set.
Books, hand fans, paper dolls, souvenir photographs, postcards, and calendars with artwork by Gil Elvgren were among the ephemera available to shoppers and advertisers. They were saved because they featured the Quints, and many of these items have survived over time. Postcards are some of the most reasonable items available, and these can many times be purchased through online auctions at $1–5 apiece. More common hand fans, calendars, and other paper collectibles will sell in the $5–20 range with rarities going higher.
Plates, cups, bowls, glassware, and spoon sets were also popular items featuring the Quints. Single spoons featuring one of the girls can be purchased very reasonably priced, and a complete set will run $15–30 in very good condition. Metal cereal bowls issued as premiums through Quaker Oats are fairly common and usually sell for $10–30 depending on the condition. Ceramic plates and bowls are harder to come by and usually sell for a bit more, say $25–50 depending on the condition and the design on each piece.
Jewelry lovers will occasionally find pieces such as charm bracelets made by Monocraft, the company that later became Monet Jewelers. An advertisement from Women's Wear Daily dated to 1936 states that department stores where they were sold were given "lucky stones" to offer customers as a gift with purchase. The stones were guaranteed to be from the Quints' own backyard.