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.

globe 1879-08-30 editorial

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.”

globe 1895-08-31 transit tips

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.

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