The Dionne quintuplets

In the 1930s, Shirley Temple was America’s sweetheart.

Ah, but there was only one Shirley.

There were five Dionnes.

Just over 85 years ago, on May 28, 1934, the Dionne sisters, the first—and so far, only—set of identical quintuplets, were born in Canada. In this day of advanced fertility treatments, multiple births are nothing to get google-eyed over. In the 1930s, the odds were one in 57 million. The “five most adorable little girls in the world” made headlines.

Cécile, Marie, Yvonne, Emilie, and Annette Dionne first saw light in a ramshackle farmhouse near Corbeil, Ontario. Their mother, Elzire, had already given birth to six children. She was just 25. Their father, Oliva, with whom the quints had a turbulent relationship, was. . .well, as he remarked in an early news report, “I’m the kind of fellow they should put in jail.”

The initial survival of the Dionnes was credited to “the country doctor” who delivered them, Dr. Allan Dafoe. The quints weighed in at just 10 pounds, 1-1/4 ounces—total. Dafoe was so uncertain of their fate that he baptized them before the arrival of the parish priest.

Oliva Dionne quickly explored his options. Within three days of their arrival, he’d agreed to exhibit his daughters at the Chicago World’s Fair for $250 a week (plus 23% of ticket receipts, if all lived.)

At that point, the government of Canada stepped in. A court order prohibited Papa Dionne from exposing his daughters to “certain death in some vaudeville show,” and appointed guardians. With their parents sidelined, the Dionnes were on their way to worldwide celebrity.  

The “Dafoe Hospital” was built near the family farmhouse. There, the sisters took up residence in a communal crib. As the girls grew, they were photographed constantly, in staged replications of their daily lives: toasting with glasses of milk on their birthday; peering through heart-shaped cutouts on Valentine’s Day: pulling the beard of Dr. “Santa” Dafoe on Christmas. Hollywood