The Canadian National Exhibition began in 1879. Its purpose was to promote the growth of agriculture, industry and the arts. In the early 1900s, while the fair kept farmers up to date with the improvements in agricultural sciences, it began highlighting the changes in Canadian society and shifted its focus to industry.
For many years, people went to The Ex to see the latest consumer products, innovations and even inventions.
Historic Firsts at the Canadian National Exhibition
Some of the significant technological breakthroughs first presented at the Exhibition include:
In 1883, the world’s first commercial electric railway.
In 1888, Thomas Edison’s phonograph was introduced.
In 1899, the first wireless telephone was on exhibit. A phonograph was in one of the Exhibition buildings, while the telephone receiver was in another.
In 1922, a crowd of thousands gathered outside the Radio Building at the CNE to hear a radio transmission.
In the late 1930s, patrons of The Ex got their first look at a television by RCA Victor.
Through the 1940s and ’50s, plastics and synthetics were first introduced.
In 1992, visitors to the CNE could put on a headset and step into virtual-reality gaming.
Exhibits at The Ex
Throughout the early years, while the latest in farm machinery was on display for those in agriculture, significant technological advancements like the telephone (1888) were also being demonstrated.
As Canada’s Greatest Fair shifted from agriculture to industry, more consumer products were unveiled. Some of the items on display to CNE patrons included:
From the turn of the 20th century, Christie’s Biscuits were promoted at the Exhibition by print display in ads or at a booth.
In 1917, Consumers Gas Company was promoting “Modern Gas Illumination,” which included table lamps as well as wall and ceiling fixtures. They were advertised as “artistic and eye-resting.” That same year, the company also had “Safety Gas Irons” on display. They were touted as being “wasteless and economical.”
Since 1929, the newest vehicles could be seen in the Automotive Building. Early on, automobile enthusiasts could see cars/companies like Auburn, Hupmobile by Hupp Motor Car Company of Detroit and Pontiac. In the decades to follow, experimental/concept cars were shown by the “Big Three” automakers. Today the Automotive Building is known as the Beanfield Centre.
In 1937, Consumers Gas Co. salespeople were showing their latest radiant gas fireplaces, gas refrigeration and more.
In 1953, years after CNE visitors had their first look at TV, the device became mainstream.
In the 1950s, before Lorne Greene became Ben Cartwright on Bonanza, he was a huge radio personality. The Ottawa-born Mr Greene broadcast for CKEY while promoting Alka-Seltzer at the CNE.
Throughout the years, the TTC has showcased their latest streetcars, subways, buses and routes, including the upcoming Bloor-Danforth-University subway line.
In the 1960s, consumers saw “the new Lady Schick Consolette,” advertised as a “portable-professional” hairdryer.
Also, in the ’60s, Borden’s had demonstrations on the various ways to use their dairy products. They also had ice cream booths on The Midway.
In the 1980s, ColecoVision came out with their second-generation home video game console. It cost approximately $200, and popular games included Donkey Kong and Lady Bug.
Animals at the CNE
Animals have always been and continue to be a huge attraction, whether for competition or display. While livestock structures always existed on Exhibition grounds, during the 1920s and early 1930s, many of the present-day buildings were constructed. They include the Coliseum and its East and West Annexes, the Cattle Pavilion, Swine Pavilion and Horse Palace.
Another exhibit is The CNE Farm. Located in the Better Living Centre, it lets visitors get up close to over 130 farmyard animals like piglets, alpacas, sheep, chickens, goats, cows and more. A few demonstrations at The Farm include sheep shearing and how cows are milked.
Garden Science in the Horticulture Building
For decades, CNE patrons could see award-winning flowers, plants, fruits and vegetables on display inside the Horticulture Building. The previous Horticultural Hall was replaced in 1907 with today’s stunning domed Beaux-Arts pavilion that’s now home to the Toronto Event Centre.