The outbreak of World War I brought a patriotic and philanthropic response on the homefront. The Lady Mayoress's Patriotic League, later the Victorian Division of the Australian Comforts Fund, was formed after a public meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall, the first organisation established in Australia for war service. From a depot at the town hall, food, clothing and newspapers were dispatched to the front. Suburban branches of the Comforts Fund were established in Melbourne, often through a church or workplace; at the Swallow & Ariell biscuit factory in Richmond the women's group called themselves 'Busy Bees'.
The School Paper, issued monthly by the Department of Education for use in Victorian state schools, was full of war news, letters from soldiers, patriotic poems, and details of work of the Victorian State School Patriotic League. Children were told 'True patriotism whispers to every child', and urged to donate to the war effort by raising money, writing letters and preparing comforts. Schoolgirls were urged to knit articles for soldiers, and the Department of Education sent parcels of wool and cloth to schools to be made into garments for the troops. At the department's depot in Montague Street, South Melbourne, contributions from schools in cash and kind were collected; £200 000 had been raised by September 1915.
The outbreak of World War II on 3 September 1939 was followed by military mobilisation, but for most Melburnians the war in Europe seemed physically and psychologically remote. However, the Japanese entry into the conflict in December 1941 brought Melbourne's homefront into direct proximity with Allied armed forces, and had a long-term impact on the city's industrial production, social conditions and cultural life.
Early in the war, government surveillance was directed at 'enemy aliens', primarily Germans and Italians. Melbourne had around 3000 Italians and several thousand persons of German or Austrian origin, including many Jewish refugees. These people had to register with police, and often faced unofficial forms of discrimination; in particular, Italian businesses were vandalised or boycotted. There was, however, a comparatively low rate of internment of 'enemy aliens' in Victoria, partly due to the advocacy of Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix.
War brought about a rapid expansion in Australian manufacturing, with the financial output of Melbourne's industrial production doubling. In 1939 the national armament industry was heavily concentrated in munitions factories in Melbourne's west, although decentralisation had occurred by 1943. Numerous small workshops were involved in war production, as well as the large privately owned Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation based at Fishermans Bend. Production in Melbourne's food processing and textile plants rose by 20%, stimulated by contracts to supply Britain with foodstuffs and meet US military requirements. Wages were relatively higher, but the hours of work increased and conditions often deteriorated; this resulted in some industrial disputes and strikes, especially in the last years of the war.
The centralisation of industrial and port facilities in Melbourne meant the city was deemed particularly vulnerable to aerial enemy attack. Anti-aircraft guns were installed at Maribyrnong, and by early 1942 more than 60 000 people voluntarily carried out Air Raid Precautions (ARP) duties. Melbourne boasted an array of civil defence bodies, ranging from paramilitary-style groups to more informal training sessions in first-aid and firefighting organised by schools, workplaces and municipal councils. Civil defence was initially the responsibility of the State Emergency Council (SEC), supported from 1941 by the federal Department of Home Security. In January 1942 the SEC was replaced by seven special committees under the direct control of Premier Albert Dunstan. Melbourne was strategically divided into 11 sections, each with an area warden and first-aid post. A communications hub was established at Russell Street police headquarters; if telephone lines were cut, Boy Scouts were to deliver urgent messages by bicycle. Communal air-raid trenches scarred urban parks, and many families built air-raid shelters in suburban backyards. Sandbags were piled against city shop windows to minimise damage from shattered glass, and the brownout was enforced by ARP patrols. Despite elaborate evacuation plans, few people fled the city; the rural re-establishment of some metropolitan schools was due to building requisition. Civil defence activities were important in maintaining morale during the war's 'crisis' period, but ARP equipment was in short supply, and city-wide air raid drills were not a success. By 1943 enthusiasm for ARP work had waned.
During World War II government regulations controlled every aspect of civilian life, from cinema opening hours to transport routes to employment options. Many private homes and public buildings, including the Royal Melbourne Hospital, were requisitioned for military needs. There was rationing and shortages of foodstuffs and various goods. Football, racing and other spectator sports were curtailed, although cinemas, theatres and dances continued to operate, playing a role in boosting morale. The influx of rural workers to Melbourne's factories, and the stationing of Australian and US troops in army camps placed a strain on entertainment, dining and transport services. The Prest Social Survey of metropolitan households highlights the extent of the wartime housing shortage, overcrowding and disruption to family life.
American troops, commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, were stationed in Melbourne during 1942 and again in 1943, peaking at 30 000 in June 1942. The American presence sparked alarm from church, government and military authorities about supposed war-induced breakdowns of morality, especially the sexual behaviour between women and Allied soldiers. This 'moral alarm' was evident in legislation regarding sexual health, and also in various creative responses to war. Melbourne families were quick to offer hospitality to US and Australian soldiers, and clubs like the Myer Dug-Out provided servicemen and women on leave with necessary facilities.
The military and industrial demands of war quickly soaked up unemployment and by 1941 labour was scarce. Civilians in essential occupations were restricted from enlisting in the military. The federal Manpower Directorate, established in 1942, controlled employment, and issued all civilians with identity cards. Manpower soon turned to women, even those married with children, to fill vacancies in offices and factories. Melbourne women were involved in voluntary war work through bodies like the Australian Comforts Fund and the Red Cross; such activities were of considerable economic significance. But during World War II the proportion of women in paid employment increased by about 5%; by 1944 women comprised 25% of the workforce. More importantly, women's paid work became more socially acceptable, with government propaganda aligning it with patriotism. Women entered new occupations, joining the women's branches of the military and the Women's Land Army. They were employed in jobs that prewar were exclusively 'male', including as tram conductors and bread carters, and sometimes were awarded a 'male' wage by the Women's Employment Board. In professions such as teaching, where women usually had to resign upon marriage, married women were employed 'for the duration'. By 1946, although many women were pushed back into traditionally 'female' occupations, the overall number of women working had increased, and female wages had risen. Women's earnings had contributed to the increased wartime savings, often through investment in government war bonds, positioning their families to take advantage of the postwar boom. However, the visibility of women's wartime work also fuelled public debate about the issues of working mothers, childcare and family stability in the postwar world.