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.