Canadian National Exhibition – Part of Toronto’s History for Over 140 Years

1895 - Canada's Greatest Fair and Industrial Exhibition Toronto prize list program cover
1895 – Canada’s Greatest Fair and Industrial Exhibition Toronto prize list program cover (CNE Archives)

The Canadian National Exhibition first began as the Grand Dominion & Industrial Exhibition on September 5, 1879. Its purpose in the early years was to promote the growth of agriculture, industry and the arts. By the 1880’s, “Canada’s Greatest Fair” was shifting away from agriculture and moving towards industry, so the name was changed to the Industrial Exhibition Toronto.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, improvements were underway at Exhibition grounds and a huge rebuilding program had begun. A few of the structures that were a part of that project included the Government Building, the Horticultural Building and the Princes’ Gates. In 1912, the fair’s name was updated to the Canadian National Exhibition. The “Show Window of the Nation” fairgrounds covered 350 acres at the time and, it was considered one of the world’s finest permanent exhibition facilities, stadium and amusement parks.

The CNE’s History of Firsts

Nicknamed The Ex, its where people have been coming to see the newest consumer products and innovations. Some technologies first introduced to CNE visitors include:

1883 – commercial electric railway transportation
1888 – Edison’s phonograph
1890 – wireless telephone
1922 – radio
1939 – television
1940’s & 1950’s – plastics and synthetics
1992 – virtual reality

Did You Know?

1974 - Provincial flag display at Exhibition grounds
1974 – Provincial flag display at Exhibition grounds (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 95, Item 20)
  • 100,000 people attended the first fair and admission was 25¢.
  • In 1879, the exhibition was host to the Caledonian Games and Bicycle Races.
  • The Crystal Palace, a beautiful glass and iron building burned down in 1906. It was located where the Toronto Event Centre (formerly the Horticultural Building) stands today.
  • During World War I, Exhibition grounds were used for military training and housing. It was called Exhibition Camp. The fair still went ahead.
  • During World War II, the grounds were again used by the military however for the years from 1942 to 1946, The CNE was cancelled.
  • In 1954, Toronto’s own Marilyn Bell swam across Lake Ontario at 16 years old. The CNE gave Marilyn a $10,000 prize.
  • The CNE was not open on Sundays until 1968.
  • 5,000 youths are employed each year.
  • There are over 110 Midway games plus more than 60 Midway rides.
  • More than 1,000 performers entertain guests while there’s 700 vendors and exhibitors.
  • In terms of the economic impact, The CNE generates over $128 million for Ontario each year.
  • Due to the pandemic, the historic fair was cancelled in 2020 and now also in 2021. It’s at risk of closing its gates forever. Click to learn more about the Save the CNE initiative.

Marking the End of Summer

The 18-day fair begins in mid-August and ends on Labour Day. The CNE attracts more than 1.5 million visitors and takes place on 192 acres at Exhibition Place grounds. The Ex features rides and games on The Midway, the Air Show, The Farm, shopping, concerts, delicious food, exhibits, popular entertainers and much more.

Canadian National Exhibition Photos

1955 - The Dufferin Gate on the 77th year of the CNE
1955 – The Dufferin Gate on the 77th year of the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 536, Item 392)
1887 - Dominion & Industrial Exhibition program cover
1887 – Dominion & Industrial Exhibition program cover (CNE Archives)
1887 - An illustration of CNE grounds, looking northeast from the foot Dufferin St and Lake Ontario
1887 – An illustration of CNE grounds, looking northeast from the foot Dufferin St and Lake Ontario CNE Archives)
Prior to 1892 - The first buildings at Exhibition grounds
Prior to 1892 – The first buildings at Exhibition grounds (CNE Archives)
1895 - Canada's Greatest Fair and Industrial Exhibition Toronto prize list program cover
1895 – Canada’s Greatest Fair and Industrial Exhibition Toronto prize list program cover (CNE Archives)
1896 - Program cover for Canada's Great Industrial Fair
1896 – Program cover for Canada’s Great Industrial Fair (CNE Archives)
1890's - The Crystal Palace, where the Music Building stands today
1890’s – The Crystal Palace, where the Music Building stands today (CNE Archives)
1907 - Farm machinery on display at the Exhibition
1907 – Farm machinery on display at the Exhibition (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 271)
1910's - CNE visitors with a psychic
1910’s – CNE visitors with a psychic (CNE Archives)
1904 - The CNE Midway
1904 – The CNE Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 341)
1908 - Crowds at the Canadian National Exhibition near the Gooderham Fountain
1908 – Crowds at the Canadian National Exhibition near the Gooderham Fountain (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 265)
1912 - Baseball game at the CNE
1912 – Baseball game at the CNE (CNE Archives)
1914 - Calvary training at the CNE Camp during World War I
1914 – Calvary training at the CNE Camp during World War I (City of Toronto Archives/CNE Archives)
1920/26 - Ad for the Canadian National Exhibition
1920/26 – Ad for the Canadian National Exhibition (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 2322)
1926 - Taking a break at the Exhibition
1926 – Taking a break at the Exhibition (CNE Archives)
1928 - The CNE Midway with The Flyer in the background
1928 – The CNE Midway with The Flyer in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 6195)
1930 - The start of the women's marathon swim at the CNE
1930 – The start of the women’s marathon swim at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1386)
1935 - Weight guesser
1935 – Weight guesser (CNE Archives)
1936 - The CNE Midway in front of the Coliseum, looking west
1936 – The CNE Midway in front of the Coliseum, looking west (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 11532)
1937 - The CNE Midway when it was on the north side of the Coliseum, where the Gardiner Expressway stands today
1937 – The CNE Midway when it was on the north side of the Coliseum, where the Gardiner Expressway stands today (CNE Archives)
1939 - Canadian National Exhibition poster
1939 – Canadian National Exhibition poster (CNE Archives)
1954 - Crowds entering and exiting the CNE through the Princes' Gates
1954 – Crowds entering and exiting the CNE through the Princes’ Gates (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 1)
1950's - Roy Rogers and Dale Evans with Marilyn Bell at The Ex
1950’s – Roy Rogers and Dale Evans with Marilyn Bell at The Ex (CNE Archives)
1950's - Crowds at the Food Building
1950’s – Crowds at the Food Building (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5680)
1959 - George Diefenbaker (at mic) and George Armstrong (standing by flag pole) in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame on Exhibition grounds
1959 – George Diefenbaker (at mic) and George Armstrong (standing by flag pole) in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame on Exhibition grounds (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5688)
1960's - Shell Oil Tower at Exhibition grounds
1960’s – Shell Oil Tower at Exhibition grounds (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 150, Item 13)
1962 - Ladies in an amphicar near the fountains at the CNE
1962 – Ladies in an amphicar near the fountains at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5784)
1965 - 3rd York militia from Fort York firing cannon to begin the CNE's first marathon car rally
1965 – 3rd York militia from Fort York firing cannon to begin the CNE’s first marathon car rally (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5799)
1968 - The Alpine Way and rides
1968 – The Alpine Way and rides (CNE Archives)
1960's/70's - A view from Exhibition grounds towards the bus parking lot, Stanley Barracks, Ned Hanlan boat, HMCS Haida and Lake Ontario, looking south
1960’s/70’s – A view from Exhibition grounds towards the bus parking lot, Stanley Barracks, Ned Hanlan boat, HMCS Haida and Lake Ontario, looking south (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 18)
1969 - Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau arriving at the CNE by horse and buggy
1969 – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau arriving at the CNE by horse and buggy (CNE Archives)
1970's - Crowds watching a tightrope walker over the Hockey Hall of Fame at the CNE
1970’s – Crowds watching a tightrope walker over the Hockey Hall of Fame at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 105)
1972 - Ned Hanlan boat, Shell Tower and the Alpine Way at the CNE
1972 – Ned Hanlan boat, Shell Tower and the Alpine Way at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 111, Item 19)
1972 - Overhead view of CNE grounds and The Midway
1972 – Overhead view of CNE grounds and The Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 21)
1974 - Provincial flag display at Exhibition grounds
1974 – Provincial flag display at Exhibition grounds (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 95, Item 20)
1974 - Crowd in front of the Horticulture Building at the CNE
1974 – Crowd in front of the Horticulture Building at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 95, Item 19)
1978/87 - CNE postcard
1978/87 – CNE postcard (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 362, Item 2)
1981 - The CNE midway, Princes' Gates and Molson's brewery, looking east along Lake Shore Blvd W
1981 – The CNE midway, Princes’ Gates and Molson’s brewery, looking east along Lake Shore Blvd W (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 95, Item 86)
1980's - Aerial view of Exhibition Stadium
1980’s – Aerial view of Exhibition Stadium (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 363, Item 12)
1978/87 - Canadian National Exhibition postcard
1978/87 – Canadian National Exhibition postcard (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 362, Item 3)
1978/87 - Water-skiing show at the CNE
1978/87 – Water-skiing show at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 363, Item 1)
2020 - The Princes' Gates arch
2020 – The Princes’ Gates arch
2020 - Dufferin Gate
2020 – Dufferin Gate
1937/2020 - The CNE Midway when it was on the north side of the Coliseum (built in 1922) at Exhibition Place, where the Gardiner Expressway stands today
1937/2020 – The CNE Midway when it was on the north side of the Coliseum (built in 1922) at Exhibition Place, where the Gardiner Expressway stands today (CNE Archives)
1889 - Pointers for attending the Exhibition
1889 – Pointers for attending the Exhibition (CNE Archives)
2021 - Canadian National Exhibition heritage plaque
2021 – Canadian National Exhibition heritage plaque
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