Vegemite was developed by food technologist Cyril P. Callister for the Australian company Fred Walker & Co. in 1922 and, after a public competition to create a name, was first sold in 1923. Its competition was the imported Marmite, and initial sales were slow. Promotion of the health benefits of Vitamin B saw sales grow in the 1930s and the “Happy Little Vegemites” song in the 1950s cemented the brand as an Australian icon.
Fred Walker established his Australian export/import business in 1908 and soon began to can various foods, including cheese, for export. After World War I, a shortage of the English spread, Marmite, marketed in Australia by Sanitarium, led him to investigate a home-grown yeast spread.
Vegemite was launched in 1923 but was not very successful. Walker meanwhile had other projects underway, the most significant being the creation in 1926 of Kraft Walker Cheese Company, a joint venture with the American .L. Kraft Inc to manufacture Kraft Cheddar.
Fred Walker & Co. continued as a separate company, manufacturing Vegemite and other products including Bonox and meat and fish pastes. In 1928, in an attempt to catch public interest in Vegemite, the product was re-named Parwill and promoted in Queensland with the catchphrase “If Marmite…then Parwill.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this too was a failure, and the product reverted to its original name.
The brand struggled on, and in the mid-1930s the inclusion of coupons in packets of Kraft Cheese helped to boost sales. In 1935, Fred Walker died and Fred Walker & Co. was incorporated into the Kraft Walker Cheese Company, putting the future of Vegemite largely into American hands. It was to remain that way until 2017.
In the late 1930s, Vegemite’s fortunes changed. The British Medical Association recommended it as a good source of Vitamin B. With these new nutritional credentials, the spread was embraced as having health benefits for children an, in the years following World War II, it became an Australian staple. The “Happy Little Vegemites” jingle first aired on radio in 1954 and two years later was adopted for a television commercial.
Widely hated by non-Australians, perhaps no other food is more identified with our national identity. The Vegemite sandwich even featured in a 1981 hit song “Down Under” by the group Men at Work. The song went to No. 1 in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Denmark, Ireland, Italy and Switzerland.
In 2012, the division of Kraft Foods that owned Vegemite changed its name to Mondelez International. Mondelez sold their Australian division to Bega Foods in 2017, returning Vegemite to Australian ownership.