100 Years of Vegemite: A Look Back at the Australian Icon That’s Divided the World

Few brands have captured Aussie hearts and tastebuds like Vegemite – a jarring achievement for a salty spread made from brewer’s yeast. Nigella Lawson loves it, Miley Cyrus has a tattoo of a Vegemite jar. We delve into the history of a food that symbolises “Australian-ness” like no other.

Published on 01 August 2023

In “Food Fetish From Australia”, his 1987 story for the New York Times, Nicholas D Kristof wrote, “Vegemite is not just a food to many Australians; it is a symbol of the country, a venerated part of the culture.”

In a sentence, he summed up what this yeast paste means to Aussies. Yes, it’s what we spread on our morning toast. But it’s also emblematic of how we like to see ourselves – strong and sturdy, able to withstand the flavour of this salty black smear in a way those in other countries cannot.

Vegemite turns 100 this year. Here’s how the spread has transcended food status to become ingrained in Australian culture – from its origins as a post-war replacement for Marmite, to the jingle that generations of Aussies know by heart.

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1923
Before World War I, Australia was a Marmite-loving nation. The thick British spread, made from brewer’s yeast, was beloved by a country largely populated by British colonisers and their descendants. But with shipping lanes under attack during the war, getting regular deliveries became tough and the disruption continued for years after the fighting ceased.

In February, food manufacturer Fred Walker, owner of the Fred Walker Company, enlists food technologist Cyril Callister to create an Australian-made version of the spread. Callister, fascinated by the food preservation process, uses techniques similar to champagne- and bread-making to come up with the thick, umami-packed recipe still in use today.

As for the name, Walker holds a competition with a prize of £50 for the winning entrant. No one remembers who came up with the name now associated with Aussie-ness around the world: Vegemite. The spread hits shelves in two-ounce (57-gram) amber glass jars. The labels advertise its high vitamin B cred. Despite this, sales are initially slow.

1926
A partnership between the Fred Walker Company and American food company JL Kraft Inc, a pioneer of processed cheese manufacturing, takes Vegemite out of Australian hands. It’ll stay this way for 90 years.

1928
Sales remain slow. Vegemite is rebranded as “Parwill”, along with an unsuccessful marketing campaign to try to capture the Marmite-loving public’s attention: “If Marmite, Par-will.” Shockingly, the name doesn’t stick.

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1930
In a smart bid to make the Vegemite brand a permanent fixture in Aussie kitchens – even once it’s been used up – the jars are designed to be reused as egg cups, mustard pots and salt and pepper shakers.

1935
Walker passes away, but one of the world’s greatest culinary combinations is given a boost: coupons for Vegemite are given away with packs of cheddar cheese.

1940
Vegemite is added to ration packs for Australians fighting in World War II.



1954
Vegemite begins to cement its status as a cultural signifier with the launch of the Happy Little Vegemites radio jingle, which is reimagined multiple times in subsequent decades.

1956
That jingle is reconceived as a TV advertisement and broadcast alongside the Melbourne Olympic Games – further binding itself to Australia’s burgeoning national identity by associating itself with the country’s debut on the world stage.

1970
Vegemite’s label undergoes a reinvention with rounded corners added to its diamond, putting it on track for the branding seen on supermarket shelves today.

1980
Vegemite hits the international big time with the release of Men at Work’s song Down Under and that famous line: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

1983
To mark Vegemite’s 60th anniversary, a plaque is installed where the spread was invented: at 76–82 Kerferd Road in Albert Park, the next suburb over from the current HQ.

Over in LA, actor and singer Olivia Newton-John opens her Australiana boutique Koala Blue by smashing a giant jar of Vegemite against the wall in the presence of other notable Aussies including Dame Edna Everage, Men at Work and Helen Reddy.

Vegemite jars from 1923 to 2020 | Photography: Courtesy of Bega

1984
Vegemite is the first product in Australia to be electronically scanned at a supermarket checkout (naturally). The 115-gram jar is sold at the Chullora branch of Woolworths for 66 cents. To this day, it remains on display at Woolies’ head office in Sydney’s north-west.

1986
A new Happy Little Vegemites ad hits screens. It’s so popular it’s shown continually until 1991.

1987
Federal opposition leader John Howard is quoted in the New York Times as saying he doesn’t like Vegemite – in fact, he refers to himself as a “non-Vegemite Australian”.

1991
The yellow tamper-evident lids that crown today’s Vegemite jars are introduced.

1994
An Aussie icon in its own right, the Cheesymite scroll, is launched by national bakery chain Bakers Delight. The scrolls are the idea of Bakers Delight co-founder Roger Gillespie, who wants to bring together his two favourite things: Vegemite and cheese. They become a lunchbox staple.

1996
Another Happy Little Vegemites TV ad launches and tubes of Vegemite, designed for travelling, are introduced.

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1999
Vegemite is banned from some of Victoria’s jails, due to fears prisoners could ferment the paste and turn it into alcohol (they can’t).

2003
A study by the University of California finds that Vegemite “may be the best predictor of cultural identity of any food in the world. That is, if you eat Vegemite, you are almost certainly Australian.” How scientific.

2007
While running against notorious Vegemite-agnostic John Howard for PM, Kevin Rudd drops the goss that he’s a Vegemite-on-toast guy. “I’m a very simple Vegemite-on-toast man … muesli, glass of orange juice and a cup of tea and that’s about it,” he tells Channel 10.

2008
The billionth jar of Vegemite is made in Port Melbourne.

2009
Two become one with the launch of cream cheese and Vegemite in one jar. Kraft asks the public to name the new product, resulting in the universally derided moniker iSnack2.0. It launches another competition, giving customers a choice of eight names: the winner is Cheesybite.

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2011
US president Barack Obama calls Vegemite “horrible” while visiting a school in Virginia with prime minister Julia Gillard. Gillard defends it and tells students the “beginner’s error” is putting too much on your bread or toast.

Kevin Rudd’s Vegemite stash is almost confiscated by border officials as he tries to enter the US.

2015
Talk show host Jimmy Fallon pronounces Vegemite “not good” on The Tonight Show. The following week, Aussie actor Hugh Jackman appears on the show to defend Vegemite’s honour, telling Fallon he “didn’t eat it in the right way”. Jackman toasts him up a slice – with the correct amount of Vegemite. Fallon gives it another shot and deems it “much better”.

Amazingly, a scientist uses Vegemite to conduct electricity – apparently it’s a good conductor because it contains ions and water.

2016
The Port Melbourne street where Vegemite is made is renamed Vegemite Way – and the production centre of Vegemite officially becomes 1 Vegemite Way.

American actor and singer Miley Cyrus gets a Vegemite tattoo in honour of her husband Liam Hemsworth, who is later inked with a matching tattoo. (It remains to be seen if the tatts outlived their relationship, which ended in 2019.)

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2017
Bega buys Vegemite, returning it to Aussie ownership for the first time in 90 years.

In cultural lessons in western Sydney, refugee children from Syria are given Vegemite to mixed reviews.

Broadsheet editor Emily Naismith makes Vegemite icy poles “so you don’t have to”.

Vegemite gets a swish makeover with the launch of the limited edition Blend 17 Vegemite – an apparently richer, saltier version of the original that costs more than double a regular jar of the stuff.

2018
A controversial ad beginning with Pauline Hanson’s infamous “please explain” moment – and a host of other, seemingly arbitrary Australian cultural moments – is released.

Vegemite is exhibited in Sweden’s Disgusting Foods Museum, alongside witchetty grubs and musk sticks. But far from trying to make a mockery of Australian cuisine, the museum director merely hopes to prove that what’s considered “disgusting” is relative.

Sunda restaurant opens in Melbourne, with a Vegemite curry on the menu. One Broadsheet editor can’t get it off her mind.

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2019
Those with coeliac disease celebrate, as Vegemite reveals a gluten-free version made with gluten-free baker’s yeast to replace the brewer’s yeast traditionally used.

Sydney actor Heather Mitchell hosts an exhibition of portraits of her co-stars – including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Snook and Richard Roxburgh – she’s painted on toast with Vegemite.

Dumbo Gelato opens in Perth with a cheese-and-Vegemite flavour. Broadsheet editor Max Veenhuyzen falls hard for it.

2020
Actor Tom Hanks, one of the first people in Australia to have Covid-19, posts his Veggie situation – thickly smeared, apparently no butter – on Twitter while in quarantine. He’s given a few pointers from Aussie aficionados on improving his application technique.

2021
Redevelopment of the industrial area around the Vegemite factory in Port Melbourne prompts calls for its intense yeasty smell to be protected – the first time a smell has been considered for heritage protection in Australia.

Nigella Lawson declares her preference for Vegemite over Marmite, confirming once and for all the superior yeast spread is indeed Vegemite.

British pastry chef Michael James and his Australian partner Pippa James put a steak and Vegemite pie in their cookbook All Day Baking: Savoury, Not Sweet. (Get the recipe here.)

2022
Cheesybite gets a new name – Vegemite and Cheese – and is now made with Bega, not Kraft, cream cheese.

The Vegemite Cookbook is released and includes 40 recipes for breakfast, lunch and tea.

2023
The iconic brand turns 100 on October 25 and releases limited-edition jars to celebrate. It also unveils Happy Little Remake, an update of the original jingle. More than 10,000 children apply to be in the video alongside 71-year-old Trish Cavanagh, who marched atop the Vegemite jar in the original ad at age seven.

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The Kraft logo is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods and its affiliates, which are not associated or affiliated with Bega and do not endorse or sponsor Vegemite.

Vegemite, the Vegemite device and the Vegemite trade dress are trademarks of the Bega Group and used under licence.