Deliberate Birth Spacing in Nineteenth Century Northern Sweden

L’espacement volontaire des naissances au 19e siècle dans le Nord de la Suède


Fertility in nineteenth century Europe before the fertility transition has been described as high, unregulated, and stable; the extent of fertility control remains a controversial topic. The aim of this study is to determine whether there is evidence of deliberate birth spacing in northern Sweden prior to the onset of the fertility transition. This study analyses micro-level parish records of 9,636 women in nineteenth century northern Sweden—a remote but, at the time, economically dynamic frontier region of Sweden. Event history analysis reveals evidence of birth spacing that suggests some conscious birth control. Piecewise exponential models of the transition from second to third birth reveal circumstances in which parents increased or decreased the time to next birth. The results on the survival of previous children, geographic context, sex of previous children, and variations in grain prices all indicate that parents deliberately manipulated the spacing between births.


Si la fécondité prétransitionnelle en Europe au 19e siècle a été décrite comme élevée, stable et non régulée, l’existence d’un certain contrôle de la fécondité reste un sujet controversé. L’objectif de cet article est de déterminer l’éventuelle existence d’un espacement volontaire des naissances dans le Nord de la Suède avant le début de la transition de fécondité. Les données proviennent des registres paroissiaux et concernent 9 636 femmes du Nord de la Suède au 19e siècle, dans une région éloignée mais frontalière caractérisée par un grand dynamisme économique à cette époque. L’analyse biographique révèle un espacement des naissances qui suggère un certain contrôle volontaire des naissances. Des modèles exponentiels par morceaux de la transition entre la deuxième et la troisième naissance révèlent des situations au cours desquelles les parents allongent ou raccourcissent l’intervalle entre naissances. Les résultats basés sur la survie de l’enfant précédent, le contexte géographique, la composition par sexe de la fratrie déjà constituée et les fluctuations du prix des céréales, indiquent que les parents contrôlaient volontairement l’intervalle intergénésique.

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  1. 1.

    The reference level often used for a maximum practical fertility in a population is that of the American Hutterites in the 1920s. The Hutterites are an example of a group with completely unregulated marital fertility in a strongly pro-natalist society.

  2. 2.

    The main exception being France and possibly a few smaller populations like the Jews and the European aristocracy (Livi-Bacci 1986).

  3. 3.

    Less than 5% of two-child mothers are censored because of high age.

  4. 4.

    Bongaarts et al. (1984) provides a complete model of all proximate determinants of fertility.

  5. 5.

    Information is available from 1820 in all parishes; the registers are discontinued at different years between 1894 and 1900.

  6. 6.

    Parishes in the region are Gällivare, Jukkasjärvi, and Karesuando.

  7. 7.

    Parishes in the region are Skellefteå landsförsamling, Jörn and Norsjö.

  8. 8.

    Parishes in the region are Indal, Sättna, Sundsvalls stad, and Tuna.

  9. 9.

    The measure of a successful conception is a recorded birth subtracting 9 months.

  10. 10.

    Not a single divorce is reported for any of the mothers during the study period.

  11. 11.

    93% of both second births and third births are within marriage.

  12. 12.

    See Zhao (1997) for how patterns in parity progression according to gender and number of children are used as an indicator of birth control in pre-transitional China.


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I am grateful to staff at the Demographic Database in Umeå who have created the excellent data I have used, in particular Sören Edvinsson and Carin Hedlund who were very helpful with suggestions of parishes to use in the initial stages of the study, and for carrying out some of the initial data preparation. I also thank Gunnar Andersson for methodological advice and Elizabeth Thompson for early feedback on theoretical issues. Finally, I thank George Alter for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the paper.

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Kolk, M. Deliberate Birth Spacing in Nineteenth Century Northern Sweden. Eur J Population 27, 337–359 (2011).

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  • Fertility control
  • Fertility transition
  • Europe
  • Birth control
  • Historical demography
  • Birth spacing


  • Contrôle de la fécondité
  • Transition de la fécondité
  • Europe
  • Contrôle des naissances
  • Démographie historique
  • Espacement des naissances