Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 7: The Shell Oil/Bulova Tower

Originally published as a “Past Pieces of Toronto” post by The Grid on March 4, 2012.

“Meet me at the Shell Tower” pamphlet, circa 1955, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 261, Series 756, File 50, Item 1.

Oil can giveth, and oil can taketh away. That might be the easiest way to sum up the story of the 36-metre-high clock tower that provided Canadian National Exhibition visitors with a great view of the city and a foolproof meeting spot for 30 years. Born from sponsorship by an oil giant, the landmark died to make way for a car race.

Shell Oil Tower during construction, 1955. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library.

Designed by architect George Robb, the modernist Shell Oil Tower was the first building in Toronto to utilize welded-steel construction. It quickly proved a popular attraction following its debut in 1955, thanks to promotional pitches like this one:

There’s a new landmark at the “Ex.” It’s the Shell Oil Tower, whose gleaming glass walls and giant clock add a new feature to the skyline. An elevator is waiting to whisk you to the observation platform, far above the ground, where you can look down on the breathtaking spectacle of the greatest show on earth, the Canadian National Exhibition…look out over Metropolitan Toronto. Here is a unique bird’s eye view which makes a trip up the Shell Tower a must for every visitor to the Exhibition. You’ll find the Shell Tower straight through the Princes’ Gates. Make it a meeting place—get into the habit of saying to your friends “Meet me at the Shell Oil Tower.”

Globe and Mail, December 9, 1961.

The tower provided an easily identifiable place for families to meet at the fair even after changes during the 1960s and 1970s saw the installation of a digital clock face and a sponsorship switch from Shell to Bulova. A year after the tower was demolished confusion reigned as parents, used to its presence and conditioned by advertisements, continued to tell their kids to meet there, which led to a rise in visitors to the fair’s Lost Children Office.

The Shell tower’s future was in doubt before it reached its 20th birthday due to a report that recommended it be demolished along with a dozen other buildings to make way for a revamped Exhibition Place. While some elements of the plan were eventually enacted (a giant trade centre), proposals such as an athletic complex, aquarium or city history museum proved a spectre and probably helped contribute to the tower’s slow decay. Elevator breakdowns grew more frequent—in one incident five teens trapped for one-and-a-half hours were rewarded with free popsicles for their misery (to which one teen responded “Big deal. You can get them free inside the Food Building”). After the elevators and staircases were declared unsafe, the tower closed in 1983.

When plans for the first Molson Indy were devised, the tower site was deemed attractive for a pit stop. CNE officials willing to tear the tower down to meet Molson’s demands stated that the $500,000 required to repair the structure would be better spent on other facilities. Among the local architects, preservationists and urban activists who criticized the impending demolition was Jane Jacobs, who told the Star that it ominously indicated “a resurgence of the ruthless attitude toward existing buildings and monuments that was so prevalent during the ’60s and ’70s. The tower is something we can afford to keep for its own sake and the fact it ties people to memories. It has associations for many people in the city.”

Despite the cases made for its architectural and landmark value, and a proposal to move it elsewhere on the grounds, the tower came down in November 1985. Its demise prompted a wave of interest in preserving contemporary architecture, notably the Toronto Modern: Architecture book and exhibition in 1987. Now, if somebody on the CNE grounds asked you to meet them at the tower, you’d be checking the streetcar schedule for the next trip toward the CN Tower.

Sources: the September 3, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 22, 1955, November 8, 1985, and August 26, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.


Toronto Star, November 12, 1985.

Toronto Star, November 22, 1985.

Toronto Star, November 26, 1985.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 6: CNE ’27

Poster, 1927. Art possibly by Stanley F. Turner. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

It would be fatal for the big fair to stand still. It must keep on expanding in order to attract and accommodate new patronage. It means much to Toronto. The citizens cannot well refuse it the increased accommodation which a careful and successful management declares to be necessary.

Editorial, Toronto Star, December 21, 1926.

On New Year’s Day 1927, Toronto voters approved by a vote of 34,889 to 10,484 to provide the CNE with $415,000 in infrastructure funding, including money to build what became the Princes’ Gates in time for that year’s fair. Both the Globe and the Star backed the ballot question, noting that recent surpluses were proof that CNE directors could be trusted to manage public money wisely. Editorials also stressed the need to expand the ground to meet the growing demand for exhibition space and handle growing crowds.

The fresh stream of funding helped the fair prepare for a landmark year. Plans were underway to make the CNE a centerpiece of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Confederation. It would be a long overdue party, as 50th anniversary commemorations had been downplayed or cancelled a decade earlier due to the First World War. Beyond the pent-up celebrations, there was a general feeling that the festivities would honour the accomplishments made since the end of the war.

The Globe, July 29, 1927.

As opening day neared, the CNE suffered a major loss when general manager John Gowans Kent died from heart issues on July 28. Kent had a long association with the fair, stretching back to winning greyhound competitions in the early 1880s. He served as president of the CNE prior to the war, then became GM in 1920. His expertise at running fairs led to a term as president of the Exhibition Association of America. “He was a natural showman,” the Star reflected. “It was his delight to please people and to interest them. He was rarely ruffled or out of temper.” A patron of youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Kent was known for providing comfort to panicky kids at the Lost Children’s Tent, and would ensure that those left at the end of the day got home safely.

Above all, Kent had believed that the public should be treated with honesty and respect. “P.T. Barnum may have thought he was right when he said that the public liked to be fooled,” he observed, “but that is not the way we do things. Here we will not make misleading statements or publish advertising we cannot back up.” Assistant GM H.W. Waters was appointed his replacement.

Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1927.

The CNE was advertised across North America, spurring articles in some American newspapers on how to travel to the fair. The Detroit Free Press recommended taking the recently-numbered Highway 2 across southwest Ontario. Highlights along the way included Moraviantown (“where Canada’s most interesting Indian ally, Tecumseh, was slain by United States troops in 1813”), Paris (“a town famous for its knitted goods”), the Dundas Valley (“a wonderful panorama famed throughout Ontario”) and Hamilton (“better known to Canadians as the ‘Ambitious City’”).

There were some visitors from south of the border local officials were less eager to welcome. During the Prince of Wales’s trip to the city earlier in the month, Toronto police chief Samuel J. Dickson was alarmed by the number of American pickpockets who stole thousands of dollars from those attending ceremonies outside City Hall. The force decided to send a squad of special plainclothes officers to mix with the crowds at the CNE to catch pickpockets, especially when the Prince returned to dedicate the Princes’ Gates.

The Globe, August 27, 1927.

On opening day, the Globe published a 24-page preview of the CNE, with an additional 24-page section dedicated to the National Motor Show. It outlined the new attractions, including the Princes’ Gates and livestock pavilion, along with pages of information that feel like they were purchased by certain industries—it’s doubtful most fairgoers cared so much about the home heating oil industry that it deserved four pages of coverage.

The Globe, August 29, 1927.

The fair officially opened with a speech by prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King that was also broadcast across the country via radio. He pressed a button to set off a series of 60 aerial bombs which released miniature flags from across the British Empire.  Though an opening day attendance record of 104,000 was set, officials felt it would have been higher had there been better weather.

During the fair, special days were set aside to honour each of Canada’s nine provinces. In the Women’s Building, cooking demonstrations highlighted dishes from each of them. Among the items were salmon loaf with jellied salad (British Columbia), sardine sandwiches (New Brunswick), muffins with marmalade (Nova Scotia), jellied chicken (Prince Edward Island), birthday cake for children (Quebec) and lobster, cheese and pineapple sandwiches (Saskatchewan…wait, lobster and Saskatchewan?).

Other women’s activities included many displays from provincial branches of the Federation of Women’s Institutes outlining local histories and women’s contributions to agriculture. Manitoba’s representatives offered nutritional advice, while Ontario, the Globe observed, “will attempt to put romance into ordinary living by showing the most approved way of spending an average income and conducting an average home.”

The Globe, August 27, 1927.

Rain delayed the opening of the evening Grandstand spectacle until August 30. “Canada” was designed to celebrate the development of the country from pioneer days onward. “Never, probably, in the great spectacles which have been presented at the Exhibition in the past,” the Globe declared, “have the producers had a subject richer in dramatic material and patriotic interest.”

The Globe, August 27, 1927.

Based on this preview description, this spectacle was highly problematic from a 21st century perspective, especially in its depiction of Indigenous peoples.

Reviews were positive. The Globe enjoyed the opening number, “The Dance of the Provinces,” which featured ballerinas dressed in costumes representing each province. It also felt the Jacques Cartier sequence, which include a native war dance, was “depicted in a way to warm the heart of an Imperialist.” Though the Star enjoyed the production, it noted a few opening night screwups, such as mismatching dancers and background slides during the provincial dance – Mounties symbolize Nova Scotia and naval officers scream Saskatchewan! Maybe the projectionists were still munching on those Saskatchewan lobster sandwiches.

Toronto Star, August 29, 1927.

Indigenous people participated in the fair but, if a photo caption in the Star was any indication, they were objectified with the era’s stereotypes.

Toronto Star, September 2, 1927.

Music was a vital component. “How can we stand the long ordeal of endless night-seeing, without the refreshment of music,” observed Globe music critic Lawrence Mason. “How can we be our better selves amid the petty rubs and jars of crowds and weather, if music be not there to soothe and inspire us?” A series of choral concerts featuring classical selections and patriotic British songs were held in the Coliseum, with over 2,200 singers conducted by H.A. Fricker of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. September 1 was designated Music Day, highlighting traditional songs and costumes from the British Isles and eastern Europe. Musicians and singers strolled the grounds. A old-timey fiddle contest drew contestants aged 50 and up.

The start of the 21-mile swimming marathon, August 31, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 11411.

Among the most anticipated events, and the one that received the most coverage outside of Toronto, was the Wrigley Swim Marathon. The 21-mile event, sponsored by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, drew some of the world’s top competitive swimmers. Check out my old Historicist colleague David Wencer’s account of the race.

Art Gallery, 1925. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0111996f.

Over at the Art Gallery, controversy was brewing. Among the works chosen for display was John Wentworth Russell’s painting A Modern Fantasy, which depicted a reclining nude woman. The Star described the mixed reactions the work provoked:

Some, caught in the web, let it go at merely “batting an eyelid” and passed on to the next surprise with a display of exemplary self-control; others hesitated, collected to the best of their ability their startled wits and, seeing other people gazing upon it unharmed, timidly joined the throng; still others strode in, remained transfixed as if frozen by a vision from another world and with an expression of disgust, stepped on with the greatest expedition; and finally those who regarded the apparition for a moment in startled silence and then fell into raptures of encomium and applaud.

“Well,” one middle-aged woman observed, “he must have a nasty mind—for I think it is just beautiful.”

Prudes quickly made their objections known. CNE president John J. Dixon received a deputation representing women’s organizations from around the city, letting him know that the fair was an inappropriate place for nudes to be shown, especially with so many children, adolescents, and working-class men around. They feared that it would warp young minds and potentially cause an increase in attacks on women. Dixon told them he didn’t like it either, but the piece was chosen by committee whose job was to pick works based on artistic merit. He also indicated that he believed beauty contests involving scantily-clad contestants were more harmful to women than nude paintings. Deputation leader Mrs. J. Patrick MacGregor backtracked a little, claiming Russell’s work was far more sensual than more refined nudes displayed at the CNE in previous years and in fine European galleries. When the fair ended, Dixon stated that art would be strictly censored in the future.

When asked about his painting, Russell told the Star that his work should stand on its own merits. “Why make a vulgarity about a divine thing,” he said. “Criticism should lead the public, not coerce it. Don’t prosecute the public. Allow the public to think for themselves. It is hard to make them think, I know, but they should be guided not dissuaded. They need to be helped along.” He later dismissed the complaints from Toronto the Good as a “backwoods” attitude. He went to Paris, where the painting had previously been praised.

The Globe, August 27, 1927.

The growing popularity of radio was reflected in several displays, including demonstrations of the Rogers Batteryless set tuned into company-owned station CFRB. Manufacturers displayed their equipment, while the city’s growing number of radio station broadcast special programming. Industry news from both sides of the border was shared, including word that Buffalo’s WMAK (later WBEN) had joined a new system that immediately became America’s second largest network: CBS.

Automotive and Government Buildings, 1925. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0111801f.

The National Motor Show was spread out between the increasingly inadequate Automotive Building (whose replacement would open two years later) and the Coliseum. While most manufacturers displayed their 1928 models, the most anticipated vehicle was absent. Despite the best efforts of Ford’s Canadian staff to secure an example of the long-rumoured replacement for the Model T, head office refused to send one for display. The Model A would debut later that fall.

Surveying the new vehicles, Globe automotive editor W.R. Campbell felt the best development was smaller cars with a shorter wheelbase. “For some time there has been an insistent public demand for models that, in this days of increasingly congested traffic, would be more easily operated.”

Overall, attendance rose from 1,573,000 in 1926 to 1,870,000. Officials looked forward to the CNE’s golden anniversary in 1928, and to continuing its modernization program, with plans for new automotive, electrical, and federal buildings.

Sources: the August 28, 1927 edition of the Detroit Free Press; the April 17, 1926, January 3, 1927, July 29, 1927, August 24, 1927, August 27, 1927, August 29, 1927, August 31, 1927, September 2, 1927, September 12, 1927, and September 14, 1927 editions of the Globe; and the December 21, 1926, July 29, 1927, August 29, 1927, August 31, 1927, September 6, 1927, September 8, 1927, and September 9, 1927 editions of the Toronto Star.

Welcome Back, Library Browsing

When it became clear that COVID was going to shut down life as we knew it in March, I rushed to the library to stock up on reading material. At the time, I didn’t expect to have those books on hand for the next few months, nor did I think it would be the end of August before being able to do a lazy browse again.

The Toronto Public Library has gradually restored its services. First came the ability to return books to dump boxes, such as this one attached to S. Walter Stewart branch. Next came holds, which involved booking an appointment to go to a branch to pick up your order, which was served to you in a giant paper bag. Kind of like buying booze in Ontario in the good old days, without the regulated dose of shame.

This week, in-person browsing was restored to many branches. At my main local branch (S. Walter Stewart), there were many standard COVID protocols. One entrance only. A security guard to control the flow of patrons. Large of hand sanitizer pumps everywhere. Arrows galore on the floor.

The magazine section, a circular area usually filled with people relaxing in comfy chairs amid tattered copies of New Statesman and The Hockey News, was closed off as a sorting area for titles temporarily quarantined (the library sets returned books aside for several days before returning them to the shelves).

This was the saddest sight in the library, a firm reminder that a pandemic is still with us. It also made me wonder what alternatives have been found by those who regularly nap in this section. While physical magazines won’t be part of the library experience for the near-future, there’s a decent selection of titles available online via the TPL’s subscription to PressReader.

If my heart sank a little after seeing the magazine section, it rose when I reached the main browsing area. There are many short aisles in S. Walter Stewart, so limiting them to one person at a time wasn’t a problem. The few people in the library respected each other’s space. There were plenty of new titles on the shelves. The thrill of stumbling upon books to take home was still intact.

It also helps that if you look at a book for 10 seconds to quickly scan the cover info or index, it doesn’t immediately have to go into quarantine.

Overall impression: a little ghostly, and some sad-but-unavoidable elements, but it feels great to be able to wander into a library to browse at my leisure. This was a part of my routine that I really missed, and will value more than usual – as long as conditions continue to allow branches to remain open.

While it will be awhile before the libraries can safely resume all of their functions as community meeting places, it feels like a piece of the city’s soul is back.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 5: Into The Roaring Twenties

Poster, 1920. Art by Franklin Carmichael. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

The first two posters commissioned after the war utilized the talents of members of the Group of Seven: J.E.H McDonald in 1919, Franklin Carmichael in 1920. The shadow of the war still hung over the fair, as 1920’s opening ceremony was dedicated to veterans. According to the World, Victoria Cross recipients were greeted with a “tornado of clapping.”

The Globe, January 12, 1920.

CNE directors sensed more space was required to fill demand from manufacturers for exhibition space. “What was needed now,” Mark Osbaldeston observes in his book Unbuilt Toronto, “were fairgrounds that would do justice to the CNE’s new mandates and stature, and provide a permanent rival to any fairground in the world.” A Plans Committee was formed to explore how to expand the grounds to the east, south, and west.

Poster, 1921. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

To the south, landfill would create space for a new grand boulevard, which evolved into today’s Lake Shore Boulevard. On the rest of the grounds, plans (assisted by the architecture firm of Chapman and Oxley) were made to erect a series of grand showcase buildings which would serve specific purposes or group exhibitors by theme. Courtyards inside each structure would highlight exhibitors and break up vast interior spaces. The overall goal was to make the new buildings feel like part of an organic whole, helping raise the fair’s international standing.


CNE Coliseum construction, interior of arena, November 10, 1921. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 946a.

Among the first buildings to emerge from these plans were the Coliseum and the Pure Food Building, which began serving visitors in 1922.

Pure Food Building, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 3502.

The Globe described the Pure Food Building prior to its opening, giving a sense of the architectural look the directors wanted:

The building is designed in an Italian character, the exterior walls being of buff brick, trimmed with a cream-coloured artificial stone, while the entrances are emphasized by an arched treatment and a free use of artificial stone. Three of the interior courts have an artificial stone colonnade surrounding them, and the others have a wood treatment that will give an element of variety and be less formal in character. The courts will be paved and painted and some will have fountains in the centre.

The Globe, September 2, 1922.

Around 70 exhibitors showcased their products for the Pure Food Building’s debut. Among them were many brands which still exist in the 21st century, including Christie, Crisco, Heinz, Kellogg’s, Oh Henry, Red Rose, and Swift Meats. With demand far exceeding space, an addition was built in 1923, which initially showcased international products. The building would be replaced by the current Food Building in the 1950s.


Lost Children Tent, 1923. Toronto Public Library.

The police did a bustling business in watching over children who couldn’t find their children amid the crush of humanity. The two boys in the front of this picture don’t appear to mind their stay at the tent.

Midway, 1924. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0112084f.

In 1922, the Globe provided a sketch of the appeal of that year’s midway attractions, provided by the American-based Clarence A. Wortham World’s Best Shows:

The great appeal of the midway to the people is not accidental. A walk through the Wortham Shows demonstrates that nothing has been left to chance. Every amusement palate has been carefully catered to. There are in all 22 shows, but practically no two are alike. Even the placing of the shows is a matter of carefully selected contrasts. Right at the entrance is the swimming and diving exhibition. Next door is a mechanical village, two attractions as wide apart as the poles.

All can get the enjoyment or excitement they cravee, whether it is thrills from the dare-devil motorcycle riders clinging fly-like to a perpendicular wall while whirling around at a mile a minute, or from the trick riding and roping exhibition in the Wild West Show.

Colour, music, movement and humour all strike dominant chords in the human organism. The crowds vibrate, pay and enjoy.

Fonds 1244, Item 2017A

CNE Ferris Wheels at night, circa 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2017A.

Unfortunately, Wortham died shortly after the 1922 fair ended, though the shows went on. For its 1923 schedule, the organization required 21 flat railway cars to transport its 70 wagons. It was soon replaced at the Ex by the Johnny F. Jones exposition company.

The Globe, August 28, 1924.

There was always time for the “aristocrats of catdom” at the annual cat show.

Poster, 1924. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

At a luncheon with auto industry executives in August 1923, CNE VP George T. Irving discussed future plans. He addressed concerns that the automotive show was spread out among too many buildings, suggesting that funding for a dedicated automotive building could be raised with contributions from long-term exhibitors, as had been the case with the Pure Food Building.

At the same lunchon, British automaker Sir William Letts told the guests that he looked forward to a day “when our young people will include a visit to your exhibition as a part of their education. It is my opinion that if more Britishers could be brought to your fair each year it would do more to alter and improve their knowledge of Canada than would a hundred years of reading from books.”

Architect Alfred Chapman went over to England in 1924 to view the British Empire Exposition held at Wembley. He felt that, apart from some special building features, there was little for the CNE could learn. He did promote a scheme near the new eastern entrance, Empire Court, where a British building would be flanked in a semi-circle by other structures representing different parts of the British Empire.

The Globe, June 2, 1926.

During the CNE directors’ luncheon in September 1924, Ontario minister of highways (and future premier) George S. Henry announced that the province would build a new government building on the grounds to house all of the provincial exhibits. Beyond showcasing the finest industrial and natural elements of Ontario, the provincial government felt it might spur other provinces to build similar structures. Work began on the project in November 1925, with the ceremonial cornerstone laid in June 1926.

As opening day of the 1926 CNE approached, 500 workers divided into three shifts rushed to finish the building. The main worry was securing enough labourers, especially plasterers, during an overall construction boom.


Poster showing the Ontario Government Building, 1926. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

In an essay for the Globe, Ferguson outlined the province’s goals for the Ontario Government Building:

It demonstrates the confidence the people of Ontario have in the Canadian National Exhibition. If we were not convinced beyond peradventure that this enterprise will continue to develop in its scope, its extent and its usefulness, we would not feel justified in expending public money on a permanent structure to display the products of Ontario. We are fully satisfied, however, that it is good business for the province to erect a building here which, in all probability, will endure for centuries, and as long as it remains will be evidence of our faith in the value and the stability of this great exhibition.

For the people of Ontario, the new home for our products will serve a very practical purpose. This is an age of publicity. It is of little use producing a high grade of goods unless you make the fact sufficiently well known to the world…It is necessary not only to demonstrate to other communities the boundless possibilities of Ontario, but we have in some measure to educate ourselves. I doubt if many of use realize how great are the resources of this province.

While Ferguson’s vision of the building enduring has been true so far, it would experience different uses over its history. As of 2020, it is home to the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex.

The Globe, August 28, 1926.

The fair was formally opened by Sir Thiruvalayangudi Vijayaraghavacharya, a diplomat who had served as the Commissioner for India at the British Empire Exhibition. As South Asians were still considered “exotic” in 1926 Toronto, he was described by the Globe as “a man of average Indian weight and stature, quick and active and strong, with a skin which enhances the flashing glints of his eyes, which are vital sparks of intelligence.” His profile also made sure to mention his silk and gold turban, a quick discussion of the caste system, and the observation that he was accompanied by his own cooks to ensure he stuck to a Hindu diet.

Buffalo Times, August 22, 1926.

Exhibition space remained a problem as the new construction program continued. Several countries and British colonies were denied their requests for more room, especially India and South Africa, who wanted to remount portions of the British Empire Exhibition displays.

Next: CNE ’27.

Sources: Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008); the August 18, 1922 edition of Canadian Grocer; the August 12, 1922, September 9, 1922, August 28, 1923, August 18, 1924, September 6, 1924, January 7, 1926, August 5, 1926, and August 28, 1926 editions of the Globe; and the August 24, 1923 edition of the New York Clipper.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 4: The Prince of Wales and the Princes’ Gates


Poster, 1919. Art by J.E. H. McDonald. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

Beyond being the first post-First World War fair, the highlight of the 1919 edition of the CNE may have been the presence of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor), who formally opened the festivities on February 25. The Prince had spent the year touring Great Britain and Canada, demonstrating masterful PR skills that Piers Brendon describes in the Penguin Monarchs series:

Edward had a genuine, if somewhat woolly, sympathy for the poor and the dispossessed. He cared especially about ex-servicemen and took a particular interest in housing conditions. Moreover, he learned to communicate his concerns in excellent impromptu speeches. Where royalty had previously smiled and waved de haut en bas, Edward stepped down from his pedestal. He mixed freely, talked informally and shook myriad hands, a gesture he described as pump-handling.

ts 19-08-23 simpsons prince of wales ad

Simpsons ad, Toronto Star, August 23, 1919.

While visiting Canada, the Prince felt it was critical to avoid condescension or pomposity. The tour across the country was envisioned by British prime minister David Lloyd George as a way to strengthen imperial pride. The trip was a success, increasing the Prince’s self-confidence and his impatience with stuffy, over-formalized protocols.

f1548_s0393_it15895 prince of wales 1919

The Prince of Wales, August 25, 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 15895.

The World described the effect of his presence:

Right from his entry to the grounds yesterday the prince gave the impression that he was one of themselves. He knew they wanted to get as good a glimpse as they could; and without seeking the limelight in the ordinary acceptation of the word, he gave the people every opportunity of seeing him fair and square. And the public realized it and liked it. Those who had any doubts that a Toronto crowd or a Canadian crowd could not cheer had these removed yesterday. The prince had a tremendous ovation everywhere he went–an unmistakable token of the affection of all the people.

prince of wales cne book

The Canadian National Exhibition 1879-1920 (Toronto: T.H. Best, 1920).

Following an introduction by Ontario premier Sir William Hearst, the Prince spoke of the city’s strong British ties, praising a sense of loyalty to the crown stretching back to the United Empire Loyalists. The prince said that he was delighted to visit Toronto after all he had heard about the city from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer solders or better friends.”


Prince of Wales at Canadian National Exhibition, 1919. Photo by Reginald Symonds Timmis. Toronto Public Library.

The Prince reflected on the province’s contributions to the war, before concluding that “a splendid future awaits you as a great self-governing nation, with British institutions, British ideals, and undiminished loyalty to the British commonwealth and crown.”

He also promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust,” a vow which would be tested by the abdication crisis of 1936 and his actions in the years that followed.

pictures-r-2682 princes gates model

Model of the Princes’ Gates, 1926. Photo by Pringle & Booth. Toronto Public Library, X65-196.

In the early 1920s, the CNE commissioned a plan by the architectural firm Chapman and Oxley to expand and revamp the grounds, which will be discussed more in the next installment.  Among its key elements was a grand new eastern entrance leading into an “Empire Court” surrounded by new buildings. This entrance evolved into a grand stone and concrete gate with nine columns representing the Canadian provinces at  the time, topped with a winged angel of victory.

Originally the entrance, which would be ready for the 1927 CNE, was to be named “The Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Gates” to mark the 60th anniversary of Canadian confederation.  This was scrapped in early August 1927 in favour of “Princes’ Gates” as officials began negotiations to have the Prince of Wales and his younger brother Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) formally open the entrance during their visit to the city.

tspa_0123763f prince of wales greeting 1927

The Prince of Wales greeting war veterans, 1927. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0123763f.

Several weeks before the fair opened, the Princes attended an August 7 memorial service on the grounds for First World War servicemen. The Prince of Wales led the 50,000 attendees in readings from the Book of Revelations.


Edward, Prince of Wales, at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8140.

After crossing the country, the princes returned to officially dedicate the Princes’ Gates on August 30, 1927. Despite rain, the ribbon-cutting ceremony began shortly after the princes arrived at 10:45 a.m. Stepping back to look at the arch, the Prince of Wales noted “it’s very fine, isn’t it?”


Sketch of the Princes’ Gates by Owen Staples, circa 1928. Toronto Public Library.

Following the ceremony, the princes observed a parade of war veterans. They signed a bible presented by, in the unfortunate phrasing of the Star, “a group of the first Canadians, swarthy councillors from the Tuscarora reserve near Brantford.” The tome had previously been signed by several members of the royal family, including their father King George V.

Next: The Roaring 20s.

Sources: Edward VIII by Piers Brendon (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2016); Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008); the August 6, 1927, August 8, 1927 edition of the Globe; the August 30, 1927 edition of the Toronto Star; the August 30, 1927 edition of the Telegram; and the August 26, 1919 edition of the Toronto World.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 3: The First World War


Poster, 1914. Art by Arthur Henry Hider. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

Unfortunately, hopes for a swift end to the recent outbreak of hostilities in Europe were futile. Arthur Henry Hider (1870-1952) was a commercial artist who created at least eight posters for the fair between 1906 and 1917. One of his steady gigs was his annual painting of the winning horse at the Queen’s Plate—as Mail and Empire/Globe and Mail columnist J.V. McAree once observed, Hider’s horse portraits were “found in nearly every bar in Canada.”

After the fair ended, the grounds were turned into a military training complex. Over the first three winters of the war, troops were housed in the larger builders on the grounds, which were converted to barracks. Up to 15,000 soldiers were based in the park, included an American battalion. The CNE continued throughout the war, with plenty of military-themed activities, demonstrations, and displays.

Fonds 1244, Item 880

CNE Midway game featuring caricatures of Kaiser Wilhelm II, between 1914 and 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 880.

Midway games poked fun at the enemy, especially Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

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Canadian Home Journal, August 1915.

While attendance reached  1 million for the first time in 1913, the combined effects of uneasiness over the start of the war, the lack of special offers for train travel, and lousy weather dropped the numbers to 762,000 in 1914. For 1915, railroads revived reduced rates, and the war was a fact of life. “It is to the farmer that Canadian National Exhibition is looking for a largely increased attendance this year,” the Buffalo Express reported, “and the officials are strengthened in their belief that they will turn out in larger numbers than ever before by the demand for space for agricultural exhibits, a sure barometer of conditions in the outside districts.”

In the end, the fair experienced a bit of a rebound, drawing 864,000.

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Canadian Courier, August 28, 1915.

A hint of the 1915 fair’s militaristic flavour from the Star‘s preview:

The war-time note predominates, and although on holiday bent the fair-goer will on every hand be called upon to remember that the nation and Dominion are engaged in the greatest of conflicts. Not only will this be so by reason of the extensive collection of war relics and trophies which the management has at great trouble secured, a collection made more extensive than anticipated by the inclusion of many private collections, but on every turn the scheme of decoration displays prominently in draped groups the flags of the allied nations. On the grandstand he will listen to a wide selection of patriotic music and witness a stirring patriotic spectacle; in the Art Gallery he will see a representative selection from the works of living Belgian artists, and even from the refreshment counters he will be called upon to consume patriotically named ices and invited to slake his thirst with a “K of K” special.

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Sheep judging, circa 1915. Toronto Public Library, S 16-40.

For the all the war-related hoopla, other events, such as agricultural competitions, carried on as normal.

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Toronto Star, August 26, 1916.

For the CNE’s 1916 evening spectacle, a replica of the British parliament buildings was built next to the Grandstand. The Federation of the Empire was an ultra-patriotic endeavour featuring 1,200 performers. After an opening bill of vaudeville acts, the show depicted troops from across the British Empire coming together in a wide array of uniforms, mixed in with highland flings and Irish jigs. “The warm applause which greeted the sombre but workman-like khaki,” the Star observed, “showed that the crowd appreciated the fact that here were the very men themselves who had enlisted to make the ‘Federation of Empire’ a glorious fact.” A Union Jack, claimed to be the largest ever displayed in British North America, was unfurled for the audience. Fireworks brought the show to a close.

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Toronto Star, August 29, 1916.

Yes, visitors could experience a taste of trench warfare. Supervised by their officers, soldiers in the 169th Battalion spent the days leading up to the opening of the 1916 fair digging two sets of trenches replicating those found on the western front. For those craving battle action, mock naval attacks were staged in Lake Ontario, completed with a mined area off-shore.

To promote good taste and remove displays that might offend a wartime audience, the midway was cleaned up. Traditional sideshow freaks and “chambers of horrors” were replaced with sanitized attractions approved by William Banks, Toronto’s chief theatrical censor.

This ad also appears to be one of the first promoting the CNE to highlight the phrase “let’s go,” which would become part of its tagline years later.


Poster, 1917. Art by Arthur Henry Hider. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

While the 50th anniversary of Confederation should have been cause for grand celebrations, the subdued colours of this poster reflect the downcast mood of the country as the war dragged on. 

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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, September 2, 1917.

The World‘s editorial about the 1917 CNE struck an optimistic note, especially regarding the entry of the United States into the war, and found the fair’s endurance through the war years remarkable.

It is a unique thing on this continent to carry on such a huge activity annually. To do it while the battle rages loud and long thru four years is nothing short of phenomenal…The entry of the United States into the war has thickened the fellowship between us and our neighbours, and the hundreds of their splendid young men who are with us on military duty at present, are an earnest of the thousands of visitors who will make the fair an opportunity to visit their relatives in the flying corps.


Programme cover, 1918. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

Children’s Day always brought out a large crowd, and 1918’s was no exception, drawing 92,000 to the grounds on August 27 that year. The World observed the throngs of kids enjoying themselves:

Oh, so many children! Children everywhere. They surely took possession of the expansive Exhibition grounds yesterday. It was full possession too, no mistake about that. They settled on the grounds by “squatting” at luncheon time, and only with difficulty could one wend his way thru the great throng. Lunch baskets chock full of goodies were in evidence long before 12 o’clock, for it is astonishing how soon and how big young appetites get when there is a lunch basket handy.

Streetcars from all directions brought their precious loads, and by noon the grounds made a scene of animation not surpassed in all the years that there has been an exhibition.

Around 300 children found themselves at the lost children’s tent, setting a new record. Sobbing kids wanting their mothers brought in by police were soothed with candy and cookies. Others who found their way to the tent blamed their parents for their situation. As one girl declared, “I ain’t lost — my mother is.”


Baby clinics exhibition, September 6, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 585.

A provincial display offering child care tips, where nurses discussed topics ranging from proper clothing to setting up nurseries. It was one of the many educational exhibits designed to prepare parents for the postwar world. 

Next: The Prince of Wales and the Princes’ Gates.

Sources: The Ex: A Picture History of the Canadian National Exhibition by James Lorimer (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel , 1973); Once Upon a Century: 100 Year History of the ‘Ex’ (Toronto: J.H. Robinson Publishing, 1978); the August 22, 1915 edition of the Buffalo Express; the June 15, 1949 edition of the Globe and Mail; the August 27, 1915, August 26, 1916, and August 29, 1916 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 27, 1917, August 27, 1918, and August 28, 1918 editions of the Toronto World.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 2: Into the 20th Century


Invitation to the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, 1901. Toronto Public Library.

In front of 15,000 spectators at the Grandstand, Sir Wilfrid Laurier opened the first Toronto Industrial Exhibition of the century that, a few years later, he declared would belong to Canada. After an address given by fair officials, Laurier pressed a button which started up the machines in the Machinery Hall. “The hurrahs of the spectators,” the Star reported, “were added to by a cheer from the whistles on all the steam traction engines in the rear of the Agricultural Building.


Ticket for opening of the 1901 Industrial Exhibition. Toronto Public Library.

The bearer and his lady likely encountered a traffic jam getting to the fairgrounds, even before the rise of the automobile. It was reported that the crunch of horses and carriages was so bad during Citizens’ Day in 1885 that cyclists found it impossible to weave around them.

A Star editorial offered several suggestions on how Torontonians could promote the fair:

  • Every public building should fly the exhibition’s flag.
  • Stores and homes should be lit up (“let your house look alive, cheerful, and cosy”).
  • Readily offer help to fair visitors get around the city. “Do it carefully and cheerfully, not forgetting the time when you were a stranger here yourself.”
  • Don’t discuss the highlights and lowlights of the fair to others until you’ve seen it for yourself.
  • Go to the fair, study its layout, “and decide whether new buildings are required.”



Art Gallery, Canadian National Exhibition, 1910. Postcard by Valentine and Sons’. Toronto Public Library, PC 14.

Judging by the construction boom at the fairgrounds over the next decade, the public decided a few new structures were needed.  Attendees and officials complained that the grounds were too crowded. Exhibitors complained about the lack of display space, especially those who envisioned showing the public every step in the production process of their products. Aesthetically, the grounds looked outdated compared to other major exhibitions around the world.

The construction boom began with the opening of the Art Gallery in 1902.  Until that time, the gallery, operated by the Ontario Society of Artists, had occupied a wing in the Crystal Palace, where observers were irritated by how high the works were hung on the walls. It was also, as the News observed in 1897, “rather incongruous to lump in pictures with commercial exhibits.”

“With increasing attention to the social role of art as civilizing force that underscored the importance of elite leadership and taste,” Keith Walden observes in Becoming Modern in Toronto, “there was more inclination to separate it emphatically from practical, mundane objects. If art was to lift people from a narrow preoccupation with their appetites and develop their spiritual natures, it required more protection, more obvious cues to its elevated status.”

Despite its classical inspiration, the gallery was, in the great Toronto tradition, built cheaply with wood. It was replaced in 1905 with a sturdier, fireproofed building designed by George Gouinlock, who would be kept busy designing many of the other new fair structures.

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Ruins of Grandstand following fire, November 1906. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 12.

Accelerating the reconstruction program was a fire on October 18, 1906 which destroyed the Crystal Palace, the cattle sheds, and the second incarnation of the Grandstand. A Gouinlock-designed replacement for the latter opened the following year, remaining in use until another blaze destroyed it in April 1946. The fourth Grandstand opened for the 1948 fair and evolved into Exhibition Stadium.


Poster, 1907. Art by “J.D.K.” Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

Perhaps the Mercury-esque figure represented the CNE’s hopes for a swift recovery from the fire.


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Dufferin Gate, circa 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 272.

Like other fair structures, the Dufferin Gate has gone through several incarnations. The original version depicted here met its demise as part of the changes that accompanied the gradual change of the fair’s name to the Canadian National Exhibition. First seen in advertising around 1903, the new fair title was officially adopted in 1912.


Dufferin Gate, November 16, 1942. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1659.

Constructed in 1910, the second Dufferin Gate arrived near the end of the fair’s pre-war building boom. This entrance welcomed visitors until it was demolished for construction of the Gardiner Expressway in the late 1950s.

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Entrance to Manufacturers’ Building, 1910. Toronto Public Library, PC 88.

From the August 1909 issue of Construction:

“Toronto has the most beautifully situated and largest exhibition grounds in the world, and, incidentally, it may also be said, the finest type of permanent exhibition buildings. This is the consensus of opinion of the legion of American visitors who annually find the Canadian National Exhibition a cynosure of attraction, and also the expression of the many travellers from abroad, who have in journeying through the Dominion on business or pleasure, includes this important event in their itinerary. And well this may be said, for both the ground, which cover an area of 260 acres and extend a mile and a half in length, and the substantial character and magnitude of the buildings are such as to readily impress one with the importance, the greatness and the vastness of it all.”

Opened in 1903 and designed by Gouinlock, the Manufacturers’ Building remained in use until it was destroyed by fire in 1961.

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Canadian Grocer, September 16, 1910.

Every year, Canadian Grocer magazine dedicated plenty of space to spotlight the food manufacturer exhibits. Among those featured in 1910 was The Cowan Company, which produced cocoa and chocolate bars. Their booth was decorated with advertising identical to promotional materials sent to grocers. “At one corner of the booth,” Canadian Grocer observed, “was an attractive showcase in which every product of the company was tastefully displayed. There was also a miniature exhibit showing the various processed of the evolution of cocoa from the cocoa tree until it is transformed into a hot, delicious, invigorating cup of [Cowan’s] Perfection Cocoa.”

Cowan’s was sold to Rowntree in 1926. Its Sterling Road plant continues to produce chocolate products for Nestle.

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Canadian Grocer, September 16, 1910.

All the HP Sauce you could ever want…and more.

Built by HP’s Canadian distributor W.G. Patrick & Co., Canadian Grocer felt “it was probably the most unique display of the many that claimed the attention of the crowds that passed through the Manufacturers’ Building, combining as it did a certain distinction of design and a splendid setting for the goods exhibited.”


Toronto Star, August 27, 1912.

Perhaps the Duke of Connaught ate more than hot dogs when, in his role as Governor-General, he officially opened the fair on August 26, 1912. An excerpt from his address:

“The educational side of such exhibitions as this is of the greatest value to the public, for they can see and examine the very best that can be produced in the various lines of exhibits, and though the material profits may be small, and the exhibitions may sometimes be conducted under financial difficulties; yet the indirect profits to the nation are great, for exhibitions stimulate trade and set a high standard for those who visit them with intelligence.”

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CNE Midway freak show, 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2516.

Sideshows were part of the CNE fabric from the beginning, even if early presentations strode for respectability. One of the most popular attractions of the 1879 fair was a “glass hen,” an incubator which hatched over 6,000 chicks. Attendees paid a dime to see this marvel, and could buy the chicks as a souvenir. Who knows if this prompted the Victorian equivalent of a backyard chicken boom?

By 1912, the acts and displays we associate with the classic sideshow were out in force. It’s tempting to create a fictionalized account involving the clown drummer, the hawker, and the snake charming talents of Ms. Cleopatra (as long as you avoid copying Freaks).

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CNE Midway sideshow, circa 1913. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 279F.

Beyond the sideshow’s transgressive attributes in an era of stiff formality, it played with stereotypes like eternally jolly obese people.

Next: The First World War.

Sources: Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture by Keith Walden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); The Ex: A Picture History of the Canadian National Exhibition by James Lorimer (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel , 1973); Once Upon a Century: 100 Year History of the ‘Ex’ (Toronto: J.H. Robinson Publishing, 1978); the September 16, 1910 edition of Canadian Grocer; the August 1909 edition of Construction; the August 27, 1901 edition of the Toronto Star; and the August 26, 1912 edition of the Telegram.

Through the Years with the Canadian National Exhibition 1: The 19th Century


Prize list program, 1885. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

With the Canadian National Exhibition being cancelled for the first time since the Second World War, there may be some of you missing Toronto’s annual end-of-summer tradition. To tide you over until the fair resumes (fingers crossed) in 2021, I’ll be posting a series dedicated to the CNE’s history over the next two weeks. Through the years, the fair has soared as high as its tallest roller coaster and sunk as deep as the lake bed.

The material in this series will be drawn from several sources:

  • Two gallery posts originally published by Torontoist in 2013 (a general history of the fair) and 2014 (a piece on promotional artwork over the years). Much of the original text will be incorporated.
  • Bonus material gathered for those posts that I never got around to posting.
  • Fresh images and stories, especially from resources not available in a pinch back in the mid-2010s.


Committee of the Industrial Exhibition Association of Toronto. Lithograph produced by Rolph, Smith and Company, 1879. Toronto Public Library, X 24-3.

When it debuted as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1879, the CNE fit with the era’s notions of grand fairs as showcases for the march of progress. “From its inception,” observes Keith Walden in his book on the fair’s early years, Becoming Modern in Toronto, “the exhibition was an expression of confidence in Toronto, and it quickly came to be seen as a key element in the city’s, and the nation’s, ongoing success. Dramatic forward strides evident at the fair provoked frequent expressions of nationalistic pride and made it a logical place to boost the settlement of hinterland areas. At the fair, visitors could see what material progress meant and how it was being achieved.”

The CNE began as a protest against a provincial fair, which had rotated among several cities since 1846. Toronto leased a portion of the Fort York Garrison Common in 1878 for that year’s fair in the hope that organizers might permanently settle the event in the city. When officials decided to hold the next fair in Ottawa, Toronto businessmen and politicians made plans to run their own exhibition.

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Editorial, the Globe, August 30, 1879.

The result was the opening, on September 2, 1879, of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition. While the day began with gloomy weather, by 10 a.m. the sun emerged. Few members of the public showed up, which the Globe noted was “just as well” as exhibitors continued to tinker with their exhibits. “Aisles and walks were blocked up with packing cases and boxes, while men hurried to and fro in their efforts to arrange their respective goods.” The situation was most pronounced in the Agricultural and Machinery halls, where exhibits “were in a backward condition.”

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The Weekly Mail, September 5, 1879.

Beyond the normal sorts of exhibition exhibits, there were novelties, such as an office carved entirely from soap.

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Samples of addresses, the Globe, September 6, 1879.

One of the most publicized events was an appearance on September 5 by the Governor-General the Marquess of Lorne and his wife, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise. A series of flattering back-and-forth addresses between Lorne, fair officials, and local politicians were given at the grandstand.

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York Pioneers, on way to “build their log house,”  August 22, 1879.  Toronto Public Library, X 64-7 Cab.

According to the official 1879 exhibition catalogue, “two log huts have been erected by the Society of York Pioneers, which will have no modern improvements but be typical of olden times in Canada. One of them will have a main room, with sleeping apartments above, to which access is obtained by a ladder of rude construction.”

The “log hut” was Scadding Cabin, which was originally built on the east side of the Don River in 1794. It was donated to the York Pioneers, who dismantled the structure before moving it to the exhibition grounds, where it remains today as a museum open during the fair.


Crystal Palace, looking north from the Dufferin Street wharf, 1881. Photograph of wood engraving after drawing by William Thomas Smedley. Toronto Public Library.

In the mid-19th century, you couldn’t claim to be a grand fair without a Crystal Palace. Like those elsewhere, Toronto’s was inspired by Sir James Paxton’s design for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, England.

Our Crystal Palace went through two incarnations. The first was built near the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (present site of CAMH) off Queen Street for the 1858 provincial fair. When that building was dismantled in 1878, portions were incorporated in a new structure at the new exhibition grounds. Used as an iconic representation of the Industrial Exhibition during its early years, the building burned down in 1906. It was replaced by the George Gouinlock-designed Horticulture Building (whose more recent incarnations include Muzik and the Toronto Event Centre).


Poster for Grand Trunk Railway service to the Toronto Industrial Exhibition from Buffalo, 1886. Toronto Public Library.

From the beginning, the fair drew visitors from near and afar, and transportation companies took advantage of public demand for special runs. In 1879, visitors from Buffalo could buy a round trip on the Canada Southern Railway ($2) or Great Western Railway ($2.25), with up to three days to enjoy themselves in Toronto. For both of these railways, the main selling points included the presence of the Governor-General and Princess Louise (who didn’t want to catch a glimpse of real-life royalty?), as well as “a grand military review” held on September 9.


Prize list program, 1884. Canadian National Exhibition Archives. 

In an editorial published on September 12, 1884, the Mail praised the rapid growth of the fair:

“When first mooted, an annual exhibition at Toronto was not regarded by everybody as a possibility…Toronto is a large city. It is not the Toronto of thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. Besides, it is backed by a grand agricultural district, and it is the point to which all the railways in the province converge. As a business centre too, it has immense advantages. All these things went to show that an annual exhibition could be made a success. And the Industrial has been a success to a degree far beyond the expectations of its most sanguine friends. Opened at a time when the Exhibition buildings were small and few in number, and when the grounds were but a bare common, it has gradually, by means of an expenditure both liberal and wise, developed probably the finest exhibition plant on the continent.”


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Card advertising “Last Days of Pompeii” Grandstand spectacle, 1886. Toronto Public Library.

During the 1880s, a tradition of evening spectacles began at the Grandstand. These shows mixed pyrotechnics with grand recreations of historical events. The shows were a mix of presentations imported from other fairs and locally-created content. Starting in 1883 with a mounting of the previous year’s British bombardment of Alexandria, most of the spectacles depicted military battles.

For the 1886 fair, Toronto theatre artist S.R.G. Penson was hired to paint a mural of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The size of his backdrop forced it to be placed outside of the Grandstand. In front of it, spectators were treated to a series of acts before the re-enactment of the volcanic disaster which ruined the Roman city in 79 AD.


Broadside for “The Siege of Sebastopol” Grandstand spectacle, 1888. Toronto Public Library.

The Grandstand spectacular required plenty of manpower. Productions averaged 400 performers by the end of the 1890s. The apex may have been 1902’s “The Orient,” which utilized 800 performers and a 60-piece orchestra. While most of the spectacles garnered positive press, there were occasional snoozers—an 1897 recreation of the procession through London to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee likely only entertained the most diehard Anglophiles.

“The Siege of Sebastopol” depicted the Crimean War in all its gory glory. “No end of imaginary blood was shed,” the Globe observed. “The slaughter was immense, but in the end Sebastopol was taken and then the combatants shook hands, and when they went to bury their dead, found there were none.” The production climaxed with an exploding fort and the appearance of a Union Jack.


Program cover, 1887. Canadian National Exhibition Archives.

Besides offering $30,000 worth of prizes, the 1887 edition of the fair celebrated Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. Governor-General Lord Lansdowne officially opened the festivities on September 6 by pressing a button which activated a steam whistle in the Machinery Hall. That year also saw the installation of the still-standing obelisk commemorating the site of Fort Rouille.


Poster for 1894 edition of the Industrial Exhibition. Toronto Public Library.

The insets show off the fair’s buildings and agricultural competitions. The media loved mocking rural visitors who descended on the fair each year, whether it was their earthy looks or culture shock in dealing with city life. For example, there was Saturday Night editor E.E. Sheppard’s observations of how the hicks handled streetcars:

“They get on the cars as if it were too much to expect the conduct to wait another half-second for them. They get their fare ready at once and hold it in position until the box comes round. They won’t pack themselves in as their neighbours do. They are not as careful to put their feet away where they will not be stepped on, and from the moment they take passage until they get off they are continually alert for the jumping-off place.”

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The Globe, August 31, 1895.

A few tips on handling the fair in 1895. I wonder how many homes turned into temporary boarding houses during the early years of the Ex.

Next: Into the 20th Century.

Sources: Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture by Keith Walden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); The Ex: A Picture History of the Canadian National Exhibition by James Lorimer (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel , 1973); Once Upon a Century: 100 Year History of the ‘Ex’ (Toronto: J.H. Robinson Publishing, 1978); The Authorized Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition of the Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition of Toronto (Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co., 1879); and the following newspapers: the September 4, 1879 and September 5, 1879 editions of the Buffalo Commercial; the September 3, 1879 and September 14, 1888 editions of the Globe; the September 20, 1890 edition of Saturday Night; and the September 12, 1884 and September 7, 1887 editions of the Toronto Daily Mail.

Bonus Features: Riots, Dances, and Parades (VJ Day)

This post features bonus material for a piece I recently wrote for TVO.

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Headline, Toronto Star, August 14, 1945.

“If the expected announcement of the Japanese surrender comes between now and 7 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday will be VJ Day for Toronto,” controller David Balfour, filling in for mayor Robert Hood Saunders, told the press on August 14, 1945. “Like everyone else, we’re waiting for the official word. Nothing will be done until we have official word.”

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Globe and Mail, August 15, 1945.

Balfour only had to wait a few hours to act. At 7 p.m., official announcements of the Japanese surrender were made by American president Harry Truman and British prime minister Clement Atlee, followed shortly thereafter by Mackenzie King.

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Globe and Mail, August 15, 1945.

At the Christie Street Hospital for military veterans, a bingo game was about to begin when the news broke. As downtown streets filled with revelers, the TTC quickly put into place streetcar diversions it had planned for the celebrations. Ticker tape showered the streets. Flags were erected.

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Editorial, Globe and Mail, August 15, 1945.

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Georgetown Herald, August 15, 1945.

As I mentioned in the piece, celebrations in smaller communities followed similar patterns. In Georgetown, people filled Main Street as the word got out. That evening a street dance broke out, with music provided by a group called the Rhythm Rubes. VJ Day started with a parade consisting of veterans, several pipe bands, the Royal Canadian Legion, and the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. After a prayer, “The Last Post” was played. Baseball followed in the afternoon, with fireworks and dancing to Harvey Fisher’s Orchestra in the evening. Apparently a giant bingo game was considered, but, according to the Georgetown Herald, “arrangements could not be made in time for this and it had to be cancelled.”

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Ottawa Citizen, August 15, 1945.

Advertisers joined in the celebrations, with many quoting biblical passages or famous authors. Zellers went for a touch of Tennyson…

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

…while Simpsons chose American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes for inspiration.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

The recently-established United Nations inspired a hopeful future to retailers like Burroughes Furniture.

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Ottawa Citizen, August 15, 1945.

Eaton’s Canadian Department Stores division depicted the sun breaking through clouds.

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Editorial cartoon, Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

Effigies of Japanese Emperor Hirohito were set ablaze everywhere, including the examples in the next few images…

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

We’ll stay in Oakville for two more photos…

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

Wartime Canada has a period pamphlet outlining what a “farm commando” could do to help the war effort. The provincial farm service drew more women than men.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1945.

Two pictures from Sudbury. The top one feels like it was taken before the situation soured, while the bottom was after the liquor store was looted.

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Windsor Star, August 16, 1945.

What other ways were old gasoline rationing coupons used?

Vintage Toronto Ads: Doris Faye and Her Talking Torso

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Globe and Mail, January 12, 1970.

So I’m in the middle of research the other night. Browsing the Globe and Mail’s archives, I came across a roundup of what entertained New Year’s revelers as 1969 gave way to 1970. The accompanying photo showed a woman with a large headdress and two faces on her bosoms.

The caption? “Doris Faye and Her Talking Torso: vaudeville revived.”

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Globe and Mail, January 1, 1970.

Turned out she was a ventriloquist whose dummy heads were “mounted on her well-clothed breasts.” The type of act one could really appreciate after a few drinks to end the old year.

Naturally I had to share my discovery with my partner-in-crime.

“Hey, how’s this for an act? Doris Faye and Her Talking Torso!”

She thought about this mind-blowing concept for a second.

“Sounds like a drag queen.”

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1969.

This wasn’t a bad guess, as the Blue Orchid (the present-day Lee’s Palace) had recently featured the “Jewel Box Revue” of female impersonators.

Ms. Faye and her babbling bosoms required deeper digging.

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Binghampton Press, February 28, 1945.

It appears Ms. Faye (born, according to a copyright notice, as Doris Firkser) began her ventriloquism career toward the end of the Second World War. The Paterson, New Jersey Morning Call praised her talent when she participated in a vaudeville style bill in October 1945:

Doris Faye, meeting her dummy boy friend offers an example of ventriloquism at its best. Not only does this gal give off with light-hearted dialogue, but she sizzles with a dramatic thunderbolt in a scene from the movie Gaslight.

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Toronto Star, May 9, 1947.

While it’s hard to say for sure, since the ad doesn’t specify her talents other than “just patter,” it looks like Ms. Faye may have performed in Toronto as early as the late 1940s. It definitely appears that by the end of that decade she was touring nightclubs and theatres when she wasn’t performing in New York City.


Bronxville Review Press-Reporter, July 14, 1960. Would the photo used in the ad at the top of this post have been taken during this photo session?

By the late 1950s, Faye was appearing as a ventriloquist on children’s television shows in the Big Apple, including a brief stint co-hosting the long-running series Wonderama. She moved on with her co-host Bill Britten when he became New York’s Bozo the Clown, appearing in Indian maiden garb as “Princess Ticklefeather” through the early 1960s.

Around 1967 Faye and her husband, multilingual tenor Nino Tello, toured with a vaudeville-style show running under names like Fun City Revue and Fun City Varieties. The Pittsburgh Press described their acts:

Miss Faye sings, chatters, turns in an interesting ventriloquism act with her pal “Tyrone” and is well steeped in show business. She keeps moving along at a merry pace. Nino Tello contributes a number of songs in both Italian and English with plenty of gusto. His repertoire runs the gamut from today’s hits and show tunes to the familiar classics. Nino and Faye wrap up a couple of duets and join in the production numbers as well.

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Globe and Mail, December 29, 1969.

By the time the revue reached Toronto in December 1969, it was known as Funs-A-Poppin’, playing off the 1940s Olsen and Johnson hit Broadway revue and film Hellzapoppin’. It fit nicely into a general revival of old-timey entertainment in the city and across North America, when traditional burlesque acts took stages and honky tonk pianists found roosts in local bars. This also fit into a growing trend of testing restrictions surrounding the degree of raunchiness and nudity allowed in public venues. During Faye’s stint in town, police kept their eye on the Royal Alex as previews began for the Toronto production of Hair.

desert sun 1974-02-15 doris faye talking torso 500px

Desert Sun, February 15, 1974.

A 1974 feature in the Palm Springs Desert Sun summed up how the Talking Torso fit into changes in societal attitudes:

Her body, known as the “Talking Torso,” is not only eye-appealing and unique, but hilariously funny and clever. The “Talking Torso” is an intended comedy spoof, satire, and commentary on society’s present-day sexual attitudes toward the female body, which has been made to do everything but talk.

Faye and Tello (sometimes billed as “America’s Night Club Caruso”) continued to perform into the 21st century. The latest I traced her was a 2009 blog post discussing her determination to continue performing after hip surgery, where you get the sense that she was somebody who loved entertaining others. According to a ventriloquist website, Faye passed away in 2012.

Sources: the February 15, 1974 edition of the Desert Sun; the October 16, 1945 edition of the Morning Call; and the October 10, 1967 edition of the Pittsburgh Press.