On this day: The birth of Vegemite
ON 13 JUNE 1923 a dark brown paste hit shelves around Australia.
It had been invented after a few lean wartime years when imports of Marmite from Britain had dried up due to World War I, 30-year-old Victorian chemist Dr Cyril Percy Callister had begun to work on a substitute.
The recipe was commissioned by entrepreneur Fred Walker, founder of Kraft Food Co, who had been trying to develop a similar yeast-based spread since 1918 with little success.
Cyril spent months of trial and error experimentation before he could produce a brewer’s yeast similar the base substance of Marmite. Once he’d perfected the formula, a competition was launched to name the new spread.
Fred Walker’s daughter pulled the winning name name out of a hat in 1922, giving birth to a now iconic Australian food product.
History of Vegemite
But, the new product failed to sell in the expected numbers. An attempt to boost sales by changing the name to Parwill (accompanied by the tagline, ‘If Marmite… then Parwill!’) fell flat, and the name reverted back to Vegemite.
Then, ten years on, the company was given an important health endorsement by the British Medical Association, and Vegemite was purchased in bulk to service Australia’s armed forces during World War II.
And it’s still considered healthy today. “Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract that also contains vitamin B1, B2, B3 and folate, which are involved in a number of body functions including growth, healthy nerves and muscles,” says Kate Bullen, a dietician at the Department of Health in Western Australia.
During the war, civilians were limited to a per-capita ration of Vegemite. Following this shortage, product sales increased and the spread gradually became the daily household item it is today.
Vegemite jars: a timeline (Credit: National Museum Canberra)
Australia’s favourite spread
In 1981, Vegemite’s iconic status was cemented when it featured in the song Down Under by Aussie pop icons Men at Work.
In 2009, the brand took a blow when a national competition was held to name a new product – a combination of Kraft cream cheese and Vegemite. The product was given the name iSnack 2.0, which failed to appeal to audiences nationally. Following the backlash, the product was renamed Vegemite Cheesybite.
Despite this setback, Vegemite is now in its 90th year on our shelves, and remains a multimillion-dollar product.
As Jamie Callister, grandson of inventor Cyril, says: “It’s part of our DNA. It’s something I grew up with and was just always there. It’s become a badge of honour for Australians, whether they are a fan of it or not.”
Text by Laurene Joost.