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Let’s Go to the Ex, for the 135th Time

A visual tour of the Canadian National Exhibition's history—from fires, to freak shows, to fried food.

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When it debuted in 1879, the Canadian National Exhibition 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, “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. The result was the opening of what was then known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, on September 2, 1879. The first Ex included an official address by the Governor-General (the Marquess of Lorne, who was Queen Victoria’s son-in-law), a wide range of agricultural and industrial exhibits, and novelties like an office carved entirely from soap.

Over 135 years, the fair has soared as high as its tallest roller coaster and sunk as deep as the lake bed. Our gallery will take you on an adventure through the CNE’s history, to gear you up for the fair’s opening this Friday, August 16.

Additional material from 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), and the following newspapers: the September 14, 1888 edition of the Globe; the April 21, 1942, November 29, 1945, and September 5, 1951 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 20, 1890 edition of Saturday Night; the August 25, 1919, April 17, 1946, and August 22, 1955 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 26, 1912, August 30, 1927, and August 23, 1947 editions of the Telegram.

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