Originally, the area was mainly used as vegetable and dairy farmland but became more and more residential as the railway lines and Grand Junction Road were completed and as Port Adelaide grew and developed. Rosewater was also the site of the AdelaideRadio (VIA) maritime radio station system from 1912 to 1963.
The general area was called "Yatala" by the local indigenous population, while further north was known as "Yertabulti" and "Yerta Boldingga", which means 'land of sleep or death' according to John Phillip Gell.
The generally accepted explanation of the name "Rosewater" is attributed to Philip Levi who, it is claimed, said "The locality was a swamp, and the perfumes arising from the stagnant water were so offensive that I thought the name of Rosewater would, to some extent, act as a corrective". An alternative etymology came to light in 1945 when a Commissioner of Police report accompanying a parcel of human bone fragments discovered in Rosewater stated the following:
"Mrs J. Ward, the owner of the property, where the bones were found, states that her father arrived here 100 years ago and took up land and used water from a wall on the site in question, for the manufacture of sand bricks. The water in the well was so pure that it was named "rose water" and her father often remarked to her that the district derived its name therefrom".
As the population grew the area became crowded with subdivisions. The areas north and east of Levi's original "Rosewater" were called Rosewater North and Rosewater East respectively, while to the east of Evans Street were Dockville and Kingsnorth. East of these were the subdivisions of Brookesville, Ottoway and Ottoway East, which are now all part of Ottoway. East of Addison Road were Rosewater Gardens, Rosewater Gardens South and Stone's Farm (where the Flinders Hotel now stands). South of the "Yatala" area were Klemscott, Everton and Pennington.
It was not until 1945 that the confusion was put to an end when the Port Adelaide Council moved to reduce the number of local district areas, combining 13 into what is now known as Rosewater.
Between the 1880s and the 1980s, Rosewater grew to become a reasonably large township with two hotels, a police and firestation, churches and many shops along Grand Junction Road. The Rosewater Gasworks was the largest local industry and many of the residents of the area worked in the timber mills, rail yards and woolsheds to the east of Port Adelaide.
Rosewater was also the site of the AdelaideRadio (VIA) maritime radio station system, the sixth built in Australia and one of 19 around the country. Opened 1st October 1912 it operated from 8am to midnight every day of the week, and was one of the first points of contact for ships sailing south from Hong Kong and Japan. Apart from its major function of listening for ships' messages, Adelaide also handled traffic to and from the State telegraph system, and broadcast time signals to shipping. By 1963 the rapid industrialisation of the Rosewater area had increased electrical interference to the point where a move to a new site became necessary and the operation was moved to McLaren Vale where it operated until 1993 when it was shut down.
In the 1980s the extension and widening of Grand Junction Road and the construction of the Redhill Bridge spelt the end for many of the small shops in the area and property value experienced a slump. Since the start of the 21st century, with the new developments of Port Adelaide, the area is experiencing somewhat of a revival as is evidenced by the rising property value.
Prior to European settlement the Rosewater area was mainly swampy marshlands of stagnant water. Today the area is almost entirely urbanised with only a small swamp area left next to the Redhill Bridge. The Eric Sutton Oval is one of two reserves in the area, with the other, Duffield Playground, a short distance away.
Using the selected averages from the 2001 Census, the average Rosewater resident is 38 years old, with a median weekly individual income of $200-$299. The median family income is $600-$699 per week with an average household size of 2.2 people.
As a whole, the Rosewater area has an average religious affiliation (67.8%) with Christians accounting for 59.2% of the total population. The top ten religious affiliations (in descending order) were: Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church, Buddhism, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Baptist and Islam.