What The Duggars' Lives Were Like Before The Fame

Though the Duggars are now known internationally — and let's be honest, would probably turn heads in public just for their sheer numbers even if they weren't famous — they were discovered after TLC execs spotted a curious photo of the large clan in The New York Times. The now infamous snap from 2002 shows 13 kids dressed in matching red dress and shirts trailing behind Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. At the time, Jim Bob was running for the United States Senate (more on that in a moment), as noted in the NYT photo's caption.

Not only is this photo interesting because of what it led to (hint: oodles of reality TV money and notoriety), but it's also important for what it highlights — the Duggars lives before fame. From the Duggar girls' matching prairie dresses and sky-high hairstyles all the way to the brood's much smaller home, a lot was different for the crew before TLC premiered 17 Kids & Counting in 2008. 

Someone call the fashion police

Long before the Duggar family was a household name, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar preferred a modest dress code for their kids. The boys wore matching slacks paired with polos or dress shirts, while the girls donned big and puffy dresses with pleated collars. What a time to be alive, right? 

"They were like bags ... We wore those until I was like 12," Joy Duggar said about her former wardrobe during an episode of Counting On, according to the Duggar Family Blog, while Jessa Duggar chimed in: "I definitely have those moments I look back and say, 'Man, that was rough, that was a rough patch.'" 

Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the Duggar women's preference for crunchy perms and long locks way back when. Michelle, for instance, kept her signature hairstyle for 46 years before getting a makeover in 2012. Michelle described the transformation as a "shock," according to People.

Although all of the Duggar women still rock long hair, they've switched their clothes up throughout the years. A few Duggar sisters have even sported pants post-marriage! And speaking of really cutting loose, Jill Duggar pierced her nose in November 2017. The times, they are a-changing! 

Jim Bob's controversial career in politics

Jim Bob Duggar once had his heart set on ambitious career in the U.S. Senate, a dream that crashed and burned twice when he lost the 2002 primary race to now former Arkansas senator Tim Hutchinson, and again when he ran for a seat on the state Senate in 2006. But before you break out the world's tiniest violin for Jim Bob, it's important to note he did get a taste of politics when he served in the Arkansas House of Representatives between 1999 to 2002

During Jim Bob's time as a representative, he reportedly sponsored a controversial piece of anti-abortion legislation, which failed to pass. The dad-of-19 also campaigned on the idea that rape and incest offenses should receive the death penalty, stating that "rape and incest represent heinous crimes and as such should be treated as capital crimes." 

As for why Jim Bob ditched politics for good after his 2002 and 2006 primary losses? Well, there's no specific answer to that, but one thing is clear: Reality TV pays better than Uncle Sam in the long run. Although senators make $174,000 annually (not too shabby, right?), the Duggars reportedly raked in between $25,000 to $40,000 per episode during the height of their fame. Money talks, people.

Their home was teeny-tiny

Although it's hard to imagine the Duggar family shacked up in anything other than a 7,000 square foot complex, they used to live in a small three-bed, two bath rancher prior to 2006, according to In Touch Weekly. The house was first featured on 14 Children and Pregnant Again!, the Duggars' first televised special with TLC in 2004, and many fans couldn't believe the large clan was able to co-exist in the 2,450 square foot property

It probably won't come as a surprise to people that life at the Duggars' first chateau was far from perfect. "You try cramming 18 people into three tiny bedrooms with only two baths. There wasn't even room to fit enough beds," Josh Duggar explained during one of the family's early TV specials, according to Inquisitr. "There wasn't even enough space for all of us to have our own beds."

Jessa Duggar agreed with her brother Josh's sentiment, telling cameras about the family's bathroom dilemma: "Probably the hardest thing about living in this house is that it only has two bathrooms. There's always a line — probably like three or four people going running back from bathroom to bathroom, knocking on every door saying 'Hurry, hurry, hurry! I've got to go to the bathroom. Hurry, hurry, hurry!'"

Luckily for the Duggar kids, their current home has nine bathrooms and seven showers. What a relief.

They weren't jet setters

It's not uncommon to hear about the Duggar family jetting off to international destinations, like Australia and Scotland, to name a few. In fact, multiple 19 Kids & Counting episodes were dedicated to the Duggar family's trip to Japan and China in 2013. But prior to the clan's jet-setting ways, they had never left the United States. 

TLC captured one of the first big trips the family ever took in 2006 for a special called On The Road With 16 Children. It was a Duggar family cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, and let's just say the vacation wasn't glamorous — it involved a cramped RV and stays at public campgrounds. 

Michelle Duggar tried to make the best of the seemingly stressful situation, telling cameras (via In Touch Weekly), "There's definitely ... there has to be rules or else there would be chaos. Still yet sometimes there's chaos anyway, but the fun part is as we go along we just have to make boundaries for safety. Safety is fun."

While we don't think the phrase "safety is fun" will make its way onto t-shirts anytime soon, we're glad Michelle and Jim Bob were able to make these trips work. 

Michelle & Jim Bob didn't play when it came to dating

When 19 Kids & Counting was known as 17 Kids & Counting, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar would often wax poetic about their list of dating rules. It's common knowledge that the Duggar siblings can't be alone with their paramours pre-marriage, for instance, as Jim Bob believes it can lead to moments of weakness. "As far as our kids dating, we believe a lot of times if you're alone with the person, it can create desires that can kind of get stirred up, and you don't have any accountability, and [that] can kind of lead to some hanky panky," Jim Bob told TLC cameras, according to Us Weekly. Uhh — did the words "hanky panky" just come out of Jim Bob's mouth?

Another interesting courtship rule? Dating Duggars couldn't talk on the phone unchaperoned. Yep, that's right — there's even footage of Jim Bob and Michelle listening in on one of their daughter Jill's conversations with her now husband, Derick Dillard. 

Interestingly enough, however, Michelle and Jim Bob loosened up when their daughter Jessa started dating her now husband, Ben Seewald. According to Today, after some group texting (yep, Michelle and Jim Bob monitored the couple's texts), the two were allowed to "talk on the phone privately for an hour each night." 

But wait — that's not all. Josiah Duggar and his now wife, Lauren Duggar, supposedly FaceTimed unchaperoned before marriage

The family hustled more

Jim Bob Duggar is quick to share with fans his story of self-made financial success. And to be fair, Jim Bob did hustle a lot prior to fame, buying commercial real estate properties to later transform into rental buildings. In fact, Jim Bob converted a "37,000 sq. foot chicken hatchery into 10 rental units," and he rented out a cell phone tower to mobile phone carriers, according to Business Insider. The dad-of-19 also worked as a used-car and insurance salesman to make ends meet.

Jim Bob and Michelle continued their trend of hard work in the beginning of their reality television careers, often organizing meet and greets with fans. But all of this hustling slowed down once 19 Kids & Counting became a national phenomenon. It looks like the couple's life is now comfortable enough that they can even enjoy some great-sounding vacations, like Michelle and Jim Bob's trip to the Bahamas in December 2017, which was a getaway they followed up with a family trip to Australia in January 2018. Dang, where we can apply to tag along on one of these vacays?

Although some might argue that Jim Bob and Michelle's opportunities to work are limited given their family scandals, we're more apt to believe the two simply prefer to coast on their savings from reality TV. Who can blame them?

They weren't show-offs

If you follow the Duggars closely (don't worry, we do too), you've probably noticed that the family often posts pictures of their planes and vacations. Although many people front for the 'gram, the Duggars' showiness is kind of confusing given their past comments about living modestly and within your means. 

"How do [other] people pay interest for the debt on top of making ends meet? What we've done is something that a lot of people don't want to do," Jim Bob Duggar explained to TODAY in 2008. "It's not keeping up with the Joneses. We've always driven older vehicles; we've never bought a new vehicle." 

Additionally, the Duggars didn't own a fleet of six planes (one of which likely cost somewhere in the range of $200,000, according to In Touch Weekly) before TLC cameras arrived, and they seemed happy to live simply. A good example of this? Look no further than a throwback photo Jim Bob and Michelle shared to Facebook in April 2015. "This #tbt is from way back when Dad took the Duggar kids swimming in his old pickup truck. Good times and sweet memories!" the couple captioned a shot of a smiling Jim Bob posing in front of a beat up pickup truck crammed to the brim with little Duggars. Talk about a simpler time.

But now? Jim Bob and some of his kiddos are keen to flaunt their wealth and possessions. Sigh.  

Tater-tot casseroles for days

The Duggars switched to healthier diets after they gained national attention, a fact Michelle Duggar touched on in a May 2013 blog post for TLC. "Jim Bob is definitely eating a lot more fresh vegetables, fish and chicken and trying to stay away from fried foods. He's really eating smaller portions and avoiding the junk food," she wrote. "The family's food has changed a lot along with Jim Bob's. My kids really love fresh vegetables and fruit. When we can keep it in the house and get it at a good price, we really stock up." 

But before the family planted its own garden and converted to healthy eating, it feasted on tater-tot casseroles. Yep, that's right folks.

The Duggar staple, that just so happens to be Jim Bob's favorite dish, was extensively explained on TLC's special 14 Children and Pregnant Again! The recipe includes, according to the Duggar Family Blog: "2 lb ground turkey cooked, seasoned, drained, 3-2lb bags tater tots, 2 cans cream of mushroom, 2 cans evaporated milk, and 2 cans cream of chicken." Woah, that's a lot of cream for one dish.

Jokes aside, it makes sense the Duggars relied on tater tot casseroles in the early days. Raising 19 kids is expensive, to say the least, and Michelle was short on time back then. 

They were open about ATI

In case you aren't already aware, the Duggar family has a long relationship with the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) a biblically-based homeschool program connected to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). IBLP is an organization that aims to introduce people "to the Lord Jesus Christ," according to its website, and the family is often associated with its conservative and controversial teachings.

The Duggars' affiliation with the institution was first featured on 14 Children and Pregnant Again! Cameras captured the Duggar fam en route to an ATI conference, and there's even a shot of their family RV decorated with a poster that reads: "ATI or bust." 

But before you assume the Duggars ditched ATI and IBLP once 14 Children and Pregnant Again! wrapped or after the org's scandals became public, think again. Michelle and Jim Bob spoke at an IBLP-sponsored family conference in August 2018, and a member of the institute attended a family wedding in August 2012. The difference is that the family no longer seems so open with their affiliations with these programs, whether that means via social media or their current reality TV offering, as of this writing, Counting On. While the reason for the Duggars' sudden privacy is unclear, it wouldn't be surprising to find out they were just trying to avoid any further negative press.