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Historians explore hard times, obsessions with big families

Edith Manildi, 93, was just a child when the Dionne quintuplets were born. But she still remembers eagerly waiting each week for the latest newspaper photo of the five sisters.

“Everyone thought they were adorable,” Manildi, of Spokane, remembers. “They worshipped them.”

Manildi didn’t watch the series finale Monday of “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” our society’s modern-day Dionnes – though 4.3 million viewers did.

Ask family researchers and historians to compare the phenomenon of the Dionne quintuplets with the current reality TV obsession with big families, and you learn a lot about the similarities – and differences – between the Great Depression and today.

The Babies: 1934

The five Dionne babies, identical girls formed from one divided egg, entered the world May 28, 1934 in rural Northern Ontario.

Their parents were already raising five children in a primitive farmhouse. Their father made $4 a day hauling gravel.

The doctor who helped deliver the quintuplets, Allan Roy Dafoe, didn’t expect them to survive. The babies were placed in wicker baskets by an open oven door and rubbed with olive oil.

Then, the girls survived and thrived. The world fell in love.

The quintuplets were soon made wards of the Ontario government and moved to the specially constructed Dafoe Hospital and Nursery.

Separated from their parents and siblings, reared by their doctor, nurses and other attendants, the girls became a tourist destination. During their first 10 years of life, 3 million people journeyed to their dwelling – called Quintland.

Depression-era experts say the Dionne quintuplets represented hope for miraculous new life in a society mired in death and despair, a society where the birthrate plunged 15 percent.

“In the 1930s, there were a lot of underdog stories, stories of common people surviving,” explains Matthew Avery Sutton, assistant professor of history at Washington State University.

“Whether it was the babies, who had such little expectation of survival, or Seabiscuit, the racing horse, America tended to grow fascinated with stories of people overcoming the odds.”

The Babies: 2009

Here we are 75 years after the birth of the Dionne quintuplets, and the birth rate has again taken a tumble.

National Center for Health Statistics data indicate that the birth rate declined by 2 percent in 2008 and “early figures for 2009 appear to confirm the correlation with the recession,” The New York Times recently reported.

“Economic stress erodes all sort of intimacy, both interpersonal and sexual,” explains Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia and is the director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families.

And parents increasingly worry about affording their children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that parents spend between 12 percent and 24 percent of their before-tax income to feed, shelter, clothe and educate their children each year.

“Even the people who don’t have the problem feeding the kids are wondering whether they will have enough to send them to college,” Coontz says.

But the birth rate, though declining in reality, is burgeoning in tabloids and on reality TV.

Nadya Suleman, aka “Octomom,” got pregnant with eight children through in vitro fertilization. She had six other children at home.

Eric and Betty Hayes, parents to two sets of twins and a set of sextuplets – all conceived with fertility treatments – star in “Table for 12,” the newest series on TLC, a cable channel enamored of big families.

On their Web site, Jim Bob & Michelle Duggar explain their own personal baby boom, prompted by remorse over using the birth control pill. They asked God to bless them with “as many children as He saw fit.”

The title of their TLC reality show: “18 Kids and Counting.”

Are we fascinated with big families for the same reasons people were during the Depression, as an escape from these hard economic times, as hope for a better – more fruitful – future?

“I don’t think you want to make history quite so logical,” says James N. Gregory, a University of Washington history professor who specializes in Depression studies.

Popular media, Gregory says, picks up on a fad and then it’s “imitation, imitation, imitation.”

Then and Now: The Similarities

The Dionne quintuplets were cash cows. Early in their fragile lives, their father tried to cut a deal to exhibit them around the world. Then, the government intervened – and cashed in, too.

“For a province struggling against economic strangulation they were as valuable a resource as gold, nickel, pulpwood or hydro power,” writes Pierre Berton in “The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama.”

“They saved an entire region from bankruptcy. They launched Northern Ontario’s flourishing tourist industry. At their peak, they represented a $500 million asset.”

Advertising endorsements added to their portfolio. The quintuplets were associated with “every kind of product from Purest Cod Liver Oil and Musterole Chest Rub to Remington Rand Typewriters,” Berton writes.

“General Motors, in 1939, paid $15,000 just to use a picture of the five sisters in their automobile advertising”

In their ghost-written autobiography, “We Were Five,” the quintuplets say: “The smell of greed must have hung in the air like the odor of the hot dogs and popcorn that the peddlers sold to the sightseers. We dwelt at the center of a circus, a carnival set in nowhere.”

In our modern reality TV carnival, big families can mean big money.

Jon Gosselin admitted that his family made $22,500 per episode, though some believe it was much more. The Duggars hawk their books on their Web site.

A New York Times reporter recently spent the day with Octomom, her 14 children – and a British film crew working on a documentary. Octomom’s paycheck for the documentary came to $250,000.

Then and Now: The Differences

The exploitation of the Dionne quintuplets wasn’t exposed until after the girls were grown. In the 1930s – before TV news, blogs and the Internet – illusions endured.

Yet happy family illusions were shattered daily in families during the Great Depression, and often those were kept a secret, too. Unemployed fathers sometimes ran away or killed themselves, according to the University of Washington’s Gregory.

“Unemployment insurance hadn’t been invented yet. Social services for the desperate and unemployed were hit and miss,” he says.

“There was a huge disconnect between what popular media was showing about children in the 1930s – that they were objects of great affection and happiness and joy – and some of the trauma registering in at least some children.”

Another difference between then and now?

The Dionne quintuplets, conceived the old-fashioned way, were “seen as a miracle and even something supernatural,” says WSU’s Sutton.

“With multiple births today, especially the kind with Octomom, it’s seen as science run amok. No longer is it something to celebrate, but it’s something that raises suspicions.”

The Dionne quintuplets struggled in their adult lives. Two died fairly young. Their personal lives were plagued by estrangement. When their parents celebrated their 50th anniversary, the sisters sent a card.

The Dionnes live in the memories of older people, such as Edith Manildi, but they mostly go unknown by younger generations.

Now when people hear or read about TV shows featuring large broods, some worry about the children.

A California labor law protects Octomom’s babies from working in front of the camera for more than an hour each day. And many TV bloggers expressed relief that the Gosselin children will finally live their young lives away from TV lights.

“The next generation is a wonderful boon to us all, and it’s nice to see those little faces – but not too many of them,” says Coontz.

“A slightly more sensitive age says, ‘They are very cute, but ick, what is this going to do to them?’ ”

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