The intergenerational transmission of age at marriage in rural Holland, 1850-1940

Jan Van Bavel, Jan Kok

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Woman's age at marriage has played a key role in the restrictive reproductive regime of Western Europe in modern times. Jointly with the ups and downs in the proportion marrying, age at marriage represented a "nuptial valve" that strongly influenced the birth rate, at least before and during the demographic transition, because age at marriage was strongly related to the age at entry into parenthood. In most cases, an advanced age at marriage for a woman meant an advanced age at first birth, which would also imply a lower final family size, on average. This classic, Malthusian role of a high age at marriage became less salient when men and women in Western Europe started to marry earlier and married couples highly restricted the fertility within marriage.
This paper focuses on the intergenerational transmission of age at marriage from mothers to daughters in rural Holland before (and to some small extent: during) the fertility transition. To what extent was age at marriage inherited from mother to daughter? Did daughters whose mother married at a relatively advanced age tend to marry relatively late themselves as well? And did daughters of relatively early-marrying mothers marry relatively early themselves? "Relatively" here means to indicate here that "late" or "early" marriage is always to be judged within the same generation, i.e. the parental generation for the mothers and the child generation for the mothers. To what extent do daughters from the same mother share a similar age at marriage? Can this be explained for some part by family characteristics like the occupational status of the family's father and the religion of both parents? And, finally, are there any differences between social groups with respect to the extent of intergenerational transmission of age at marriage?
There is clear evidence in our sample of families, stemming from the North-Holland village of Akersloot, that age at first marriage was to some extent inherited from mothers to daughters. As far as we can tell, this inheritance is not just a matter of inheriting a social status or religious denomination that is associated with the age at marriage. Indeed the net effect of the mother's on her daughter's age at first marriage declined only marginally after controlling for social class and religious denomination.
The family effect on age at marriage is clearly not a consequence of copying behaviour among sisters. Rather on the contrary, there seem to be two different and counterbalancing processes at work within families. On the one hand, there seems to be some kind of competitive effect among sisters. That is: girls who have sisters who marry early tend to marry somewhat later themselves, and vice versa, after controlling for common family characteristics. This is concluded from the significantly negative effect of sisters' mean age at marriage on own age at marriage. On the other hand, there is a strong, significantly positive effect of mother's on daughter's age at first marriage. This is interpreted as an inheritance effect.
The inheritance effect is not common to all social classes and religious denominations, however. It is present among the working and middle classes but virtually absent among farmers. It is strong among Protestants but weak among Catholics. Overall, these findings seem to be in line with suggestions in the recent literature that family inheritance of behaviour associated with reproduction is stronger in societal circumstances that leave more room for individual decision-making.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPaper presented at the 7th European Social Science History Conference
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 26 Feb 2008
Event7th European Social History Conference. Session “Urban Elites in Transition: Features of Urbanity, Vectors of Change and Problems of Methodology” - Lisbon, Portugal
Duration: 1 Feb 20081 Mar 2008


Conference7th European Social History Conference. Session “Urban Elites in Transition: Features of Urbanity, Vectors of Change and Problems of Methodology”
Abbreviated titleESSHC 2008
Internet address


  • marriage
  • fertility
  • intergenerational transmission
  • inheritance
  • historical demography


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