The Toronto Exhibition promised end-of-summer amusement since 1879. Founded to celebrate developments in agriculture, industry and the arts, it was called the Toronto Industrial Exhibition until 1903 when it was renamed the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). As the second Industrial Revolution progressed the increasingly popular Toronto Exhibition expanded to mirror profound changes growing out of the Second Industrial Revolution. It also promised attendees one of the most fun-packed days of their year.
In the pre-Internet world, the Toronto Exhibition became the place to see the latest and greatest in consumer electronics, technology, arts and social developments. Many people got their first glimpse of modern marvels t the Toronto Exhibition. Among them were the electric railway in 1883, Edison’s phonograph in 1888, and telephones in the 1880s.
But the fair was also a place for family fun. Even before the word “midway” was coined at the turn-of-the-century it lured growing crowds to its fun zone with sizzling hot Victorian Era sideshows, games, rides and attractions. One of the most popular was the Chutes Roller Coaster (1900) like the one in Coney Island, New York.
In Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture, author Keith Walden shows that North American cities of the late nineteenth century struggled with the effects of industrial capitalism and urban growth. In the midst of that struggle The Toronto Exhibition presented fairgoers with new perspectives and information.” The fair became a powerful platform that “influenced the shaping and ordering of the emerging urban culture.”
Taking place over the 18 days leading up to and including Labor Day, the Toronto Fair (a.k.a. The Canadian National Exhibition, The Toronto Exhibition, or simply Ex) remains one of the largest and oldest Exhibitions in North America. The end-of summer ritual now draws nearly 1.5 million people.
We tend to think of fairs as events that grew in the countryside during the 1800s like melons on a vine. But the history of fairs goes back much farther. According to FairsAndExpos.com:
“Where and when the first fair was held is not known, however, evidence points to the existence of fairs as early as 500 BC Scripture records in the book of Ezekiel: “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy fairs.” Ezekiel’s account of the destruction of Tyre, supposedly written about 588 BC, describes Tyre as an important market and fair center.”
By the 1800s, small local fairs blossomed into world-class historical events. Here is just a smattering of highlights.
1851- The best known ‘first World Expo’ was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom. It was called “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations“.
1876: The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876 was the first World Fair held in America. It celebrated the 100thanniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a manufacturing trade show extravaganza that allowed Yankee Ingenuity to shine. It changed the world’s perception of the upstart country and the rebels who founded it.
1893: The 51st U.S. Congress declared that a fair would be held to honor the 400-year anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. The Columbian Exposition was to serve as a symbol of American ingenuity and dominance as an industrial power. Also called the Chicago World’s Fair, its organizers tried to outdo the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889.
The Toronto Exhibition has remained open through countless curve balls that history has thrown. Among them:
-WWI and WWII
-Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918/19
-The Great Depression
-Polio epidemics of 1937 and 1951
-SARS in 2003,
-Eastern Seaboard blackout 2003
-the Swine Flu i2009
Sadly, COVID-19 of 2020 has shuttered the Toronto Exhibition.
But the show will go on, albeit on line through the Heritage Site. Visitors can explore the fairgrounds over the years through photographs, and a robust archive of ephemera including posters, programs, tickets, ads and more.
Arranged by years since its inception, the site is a portal into the past. It’s well worth a virtual visit for those of us who are missing yearly trips to our favorite fairs and expos. Additional imagery and information is available at the Toronto Public Library online.
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