History

5 Things You May Not Have Known About The CNE

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The largely popular Canadian National Exhibition (formerly known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition before its name change in 1912) is one of Canada’s largest annual fairs that’s been around since 1879. With many decades in the making, this year will mark its 141st anniversary.

The CNE welcomes an average of about 1.5 million visitors yearly and hosts a variety of entertaining events that include exhibits, concerts, the latest food trends, shopping, rides, games and the traditional 3-day air show during Labour Day Weekend. It has experienced vast changes over the years but has remained a beloved attraction amongst locals and tourists. If you’ve ever been curious about the CNEs history, continue reading to discover 5 things you may not have known about this historic Canadian attraction.

1. This was the go-to place for viewing the latest technological innovations.

Patrons of the CNE had first glance on the many technological advances which include electric railway transportation (1883), Edison’s phonograph (1888), wireless telephones (1890), radio (1922), television (1939) to plastics and synthetics (1940s-1950s).

Collin's Wireless Telephone Exhibit
Collin’s Wireless Telephone Exhibit (1909) via
Toronto Public Library

2. The CNE was used as a military training ground and housing for Canadian troops during World War I and II.

During the First World War in late September, the festival grounds still ran its course and became known as the Exhibition Camp where visitors could watch the troop’s daily routines, tour the trenches, view military weaponry demonstrations – all aimed at educating the audience of Canada’s war efforts during the Great War. In the Second World War, the grounds were closed for 5 consecutive years from 1942 to 1946 solely to be used for military training and recruitment purposes.

A charging demonstration at the CNE in 1915. (CNE Heritage archives )
A charging demonstration at the CNE (1915) via CNE Heritage Archives

3. The CNE was once home to a beautiful Crystal Palace.

A magnificent crystal palace built from glass and iron was constructed in 1878 before it was tragically destroyed by sparks of fire from the Grandstand building in 1906. The building, inspired by a similar crystal palace built in London, England by architect Joseph Paxton for the 1851 Great Exhibition was used to showcase modernity and the country’s industrial and economic achievements. After the incident, the Horticultural Building was constructed in 1907. The space is now currently occupied by the Toronto Event Centre as an event and conference space.

Toronto's Crystal Palace in 1882
Toronto’s Crystal Palace in 1882 via Toronto Public Library, r-4109

4. ‘Freak Shows’ were held in the CNE back in the 1912s.

The Midway Freak Show at the CNE was another popular attraction in 1912 until the 70s. It featured a variety of sideshow performers with physical abnormalities to entertainers such as sword swallowers to high divers like Marian Liljens whose act involved being set on fire and diving from a 18.2-metre-high (60ft) platform.

Posters at the Midway Freak Show (1913)
Posters at the Midway Freak Show (1913) via City of Toronto Archives

5. The Shriners’ Peace Memorial Statue represents the peaceful relationship between Canadians and Americans.

If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Ex before, you will have noticed this beautiful bronze statue of a winged figure named ‘The Goddess of Peace’ holding two olive branches surrounded by a fountain of water. This was designed by American sculptor, Charles Keck, and was presented to the people of Canada on June 12th 1930 by the Shriners to symbolize peace and friendship between the two countries.

Unveiling of the Shriners' Memorial at the CNE
Unveiling of the Shriners’ Memorial at the CNE (1930) via CNE Heritage Archives

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