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Demographic Modernisation in Estonia: An Analysis of the Maternity Histories of Women Born in 1850–1899

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most of Europe underwent demographic transition. Before the transition, European women had 4–5 children on average, approximately half of whom died before reaching adulthood. During the decades of the transition, both mortality and fertility decreased and a modern reproductive system emerged — women began to have only two births on average and childhood mortality became rare.

This article discusses the fertility transition in Estonia. Our investigation was based on microdata from the interwar family register. Previous research has shown that Estonia had one of the earliest fertility declines in the world, with only a few European countries exhibiting lower fertility levels in the late nineteenth century. The article presents a more richly nuanced account of the fertility transition than previous studies based on aggregate data. More specifically, the analysis draws on the individual fertility histories of Estonian women born in 1850–1899. The study employs a decomposition technique to identify the contribution of different behavioural changes to decreasing the number of births.

The results show that Estonia had a very high proportion of childless women. One fifth of the women born in the 1850s remained childless; for cohorts born in the late 1890s the proportion reached 30%. This had a strong effect on the average number of births, which declined from less than four to two children in the observed cohorts. Almost one third of this reduction was due to the rise in childlessness as the decomposition shows, but it also became increasingly common for mothers to limit their births. In fact, starting from the birth cohorts of the 1870s, we find evidence of the emergence of the two-child norm, which significantly contributed to the fertility decline. It is also clear from the results that the start of the Estonian fertility transition occurred in the generations born in the 1830s and 1840s, which are not covered by the family register.

In terms of timing, the results confirm that most of the fertility decline was due to stopping behaviour, i.e., ceasing childbearing before the natural loss of fecundity. Decomposition indicates that the postponement of the start of childbearing and longer birth intervals only began to make significant contributions to the fertility decline among the cohorts born in the 1880s and 1890s. A comparison with the results of previous research on the birth intervals of Estonian women living in the eighteenth century (during the pre-transition period) leads to the conclusion that before the spread of stopping behaviour, Estonian women had begun to space their births, which was plausibly the main factor contributing to the fertility decline at the onset of the demographic transition.