Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture


430 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7870-2
DDC 306




Reviewed by Steve Pitt

Steve Pitt is a Toronto-based freelance writer and an award-winning journalist. He has written many young adult and children's books, including Day of the Flying Fox: The True Story of World War II Pilot Charley Fox.


In the last quarter of the 19th century, Victorian Canadian society was
mutating at an unprecedented pace. New communities, built around new
industries and employing people in new occupations, were eroding the
established Canadian social structures of family, birthplace, class, and
occupation. Although Canadians enjoyed new levels of prosperity, their
traditional sense of identity was fading away. Into that vacuum stepped
industrial commercialism. As soon as Canadians were persuaded to spend
their money on goods their ancestors might have shunned as needless
luxuries, they began to define themselves by the products they bought
and consumed. In the 1880s, Toronto’s Industrial Exhibition was the
ideal place to turn Canadians into consumers. The I.E. (later the
Canadian National Exhibition) was not unique. It was merely the largest
and most urbane exhibition in a young country still shrugging off its
rural colonial mentality.

In this book, Keith Walden, a history professor at Trent University,
seeks to understand the role of the I.E. in the evolving Canadian
culture. A gifted storyteller, Walden manages to be engrossing even when
discussing the different methods Victorians employed to stack tinned
goods and soap bars. His first chapter begins with an account of an
unfortunate incident that occurred in 1882: an elderly rural woman en
route to the I.E. was so transfixed by the sight of a new-fangled
Toronto electric streetcar (it was her first encounter) that she stood
frozen on the tracks; the driver, who was new on the job, had no idea
how to stop the vehicle.

Walden goes on to provide an intricate discussion of similar forces at
work in Victorian urban Canadian society. His book, which is at once a
good read and a first-rate scholarly study, examines the clash between
old attitudes and new movements, and the often unsettling results.


Walden, Keith., “Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,