The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets Is a Cautionary Tale for the Age of ‘Kidfluencers’Roundup
tags: social media, Great Depression, advertising, children
Shelley Wood is a journalist and the author of the historical novel The Quintland Sisters, available now.
Nearly 85 years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, the Dionne Quintuplets, born two months premature in a tiny farmhouse in Northern Ontario, amazed, then charmed, an international audience. Long before fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization, the odds of naturally occurring identical quintuplets surviving to birth is estimated at one in 57 million. But survive they did, producing a generation of well-wishers who celebrated their every milestone.
In time, those fans came to associate the quintuplets with a range of products that purportedly played a role in helping them survive, then thrive. Before the age of 2, Annette, Cécile, Marie, Yvonne and Émilie Dionne, collectively, were the cherubic face of Quaker Oats (World Watches Dionne Quins Race to Gain Weight!) Lysol Disinfectant, Libby’s Homogenized Baby Food (A Head Start in Health!) and many other brands. In 1937, the same year their photo would grace the May 31 cover of TIME magazine, their names would become synonymous with Palmolive Soap and Colgate Dental Cream. Over the course of their childhood, Karo Corn Syrup (The food-energy sugar!), Five Flavor Life Savers and Baby Ruth Chocolate bars were also marketed in the name of the quintuplets. That’s despite the fact that the sisters themselves — whose every mood, outburst, intake and bowel movement were meticulously recorded for the sake of “science” — were forbidden from eating sugar.
Today, thanks to savvy parents, “kidfluencers” with loyal followers on Instagram and YouTube can earn tens of thousands of dollars for the products peppering their social feeds long before they can spell the names of the products they’re shilling. Back in the 1930s, however, it was the Ontario government that propelled the Dionne quintuplets into the spotlight after taking custody of the girls in the first few days of their lives on the grounds that the parents had neither the knowledge nor finances to keep the frail babies alive. It would be nine years before the girls, who grew up in a “nursery” where tourists flocked to come and watch them play, would finally be returned to live with their family. Country doctor Allan Roy Dafoe was their chief overseer during the “Quintland” years, himself regularly appearing in magazine ads, authoring a “Guidebook for Mothers,” and writing a weekly advice column on “The Quintuplets and the Care of Your Children.” At the time of his death, Dafoe’s personal fortune — believed to have been amassed principally from his cut of product endorsements and Dionne movie deals — was more than CAD $180,000, roughly equivalent to $2.5 million in today’s dollars. The Dionne parents, meanwhile, opened a souvenir shop and received a monthly payment from the revenues their famous daughters were unwittingly bringing in.
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