More than 250 years of population censuses

By Pekka Myrskylä

In 1749 the first population census covering the whole country was conducted in the kingdom of Sweden. At the same time, a census of the population was also made in the area of Finland, which then belonged to Sweden. Thanks to this, uniform statistics on population censuses and population changes in Finland are available starting from 1749.

The practice started in Sweden to collect yearly information on population changes was unique. A few thousands of years earlier, population censuses had already been made in Egypt and China, for instance, but not on a regular basis. In Sweden the interval between collection of census data was at first five years and from 1880 onwards ten years. The Tabular Institute of Stockholm was established for the compilation of population statistics.

Clergymen as collectors of information

Collection of population information involved many stages. Parish clergymen received table forms to be filled in where they reported the number of population in the parish by sex, age group and social class. The numbers of births, deaths and marriages during the year were calculated separately.

Clergymen sent the filled in forms to deans who added up the data of their area for the summary of the deanery concerned. The summaries of deaneries were then used to compile tables on the level of provinces and dioceses. Finland's Governor-General then supplied the summary for the whole area of Finland to Stockholm to be combined to the nationwide summary for Sweden.

A population census table compiled by the Governor-General from Finland in 1751.

The data on the nationwide population census of 1749 were complete in 1755, and they were submitted to the King, the Parliament and the Secret Commission of the Parliament. According to the population census, the number of population in the country was 2,175,124, of whom 410,400 lived in the territory of Finland. The number of population was considerably lower than assumed, and the information on population number was declared secret.

Statistical Office founded in Finland

In 1809 Finland was annexed to Imperial Russia as a grand-duchy. In administrative functions the practices established under the Swedish rule were applied, and thus at the proposal of the Porvoo Diet, the conduction of population censuses was also continued.

In 1865, a temporary Statistical Office was established in Finland, later to become the Central Statistical Office of Finland. Handling of statistical data spread out across various government bodies was now centralised.

Population censuses had been conducted from 1749 onwards in almost identical form. Parish clergymen filled in yearly summary tables on the population. The data content of the population census no longer corresponded to the needs of users of statistics. In addition, parish register data were often outdated, as information was not obtained on those having moved from the parish, for instance.

The Central Statistical Office of Finland put forward several times that Finland would start direct data collection, that is, population censuses based on individual forms, similarly as Sweden and a few other European countries had already done. The proposals were overturned mainly by the opposition of clergymen, because they feared their workload would grow even further.

Separate censuses on town population

To meet the growing need for information some of our biggest towns started to conduct their own censuses. The first population censuses based on individual forms were made in Helsinki, Turku, Vyborg and Oulu in 1870. Population censuses of towns were after this made every ten years until 1930, when included were already 11 towns and the borough of Riihimäki.

The information collected in towns' population censuses in 1930 was processed with punch card machines.

The information on towns was collected by household and published by district and quarter. The collected population information contained age, marital status, native language, standard of education (i.e. literacy), religious denomination, occupation and source of livelihood. In addition, information was collected on blindness, deafness and mental diseases.

The Population Census Act into force in 1938

At the beginning of Finland's independence, statistical authorities yet again applied for funding to organise a nationwide population census. However, the appropriations for population censuses were removed due to savings from both the 1920 and 1930 Budgets.

In 1938 the Parliament passed the presently valid Population Census Act (154/38). According to the act, a population census and the related enumeration of existing dwellings and buildings in the country should be carried out in Finland once every ten years.

The first population census based on individual forms was intended for 1940. Because of the war, the census had to be cancelled, although the forms had already been printed and the census takers recruited.

Population Census of 1950 in compliance with UN recommendations

After the Second World War, it again became topical to take a census of the population by means of individual-based forms. The UN issued a recommendation on the 1950 Population Census and on the information to be gathered.

The information collected in the Finnish Population Census 1950 was for the most part based on this recommendation. In addition, some of the information concerning the year 1940, such as on domicile, were collected retrospectively in the 1950 Census. The special task of the census was to find out the regional location of people having moved from the ceded areas in 1950.

Data collection for the Population Census was carried out with the help of special census takers, who distributed questionnaire forms to the head of each household to be filled in three days before the time the census was to be taken, 31 December. After the turn of the year the census takers collected the questionnaires – though in several places they had to help to fill them in first.

In 1960 the population census was carried out equally extensively. However, census takers were no longer used but register authorities were in charge of questionnaire collection together with the census committees established in municipalities. In 1960 computers located in Sweden were used for the first time in the processing of census data. Large statistical tables could now be compiled automatically.

The Population Register Centre established in 1969

The Central Population Register and the Population Register Centre to maintain the register were founded in 1969. The establishment of the Central Population Centre and the introduction of the personal identity number into compilation of statistics was a significant renewal that enabled combination of individual-level data.

The Central Population Register was used for the first time for pre-filling personal data in the 1970 Population Census, although the distribution and collection of questionnaire forms were still made with the help of the population registration organisation. Income data for the census were derived from the taxation register. In this census data from two nationwide registers were combined with the help of personal identity numbers for the first time in Finland.

In the intermediate census of 1975 pre-filling of forms further enlarged and now the forms were mailed to households for the first time using personal and address data derived from the Central Population Register.

Registers utilised in the 1980 census

Over the 1970s, several administrative registers were set up in the country and their coverage and quality level became so reliable that they could be utilised as source data for population censuses. In the 1980 population census, the majority of the data, that is, persons belonging to the population, all their demographic and qualification data were for the first time drawn from registers. The forms collected only missing information, such as concerning place of work and occupation.

In connection with the 1980 population and housing census, a register of buildings and dwellings was set up in the Population Register Centre. All basic information concerning buildings, dwellings and office premises was collected with population and housing census forms.

In the 1985 population and housing census included were the foundation pillars of a register-based census, that is, the person register, the register of buildings and dwellings, and the register of enterprises and establishments. Available was also a domicile code by means of which people could be combined to their dwellings. The household and family units necessary for censuses could be formed with the help of this information. Other additional data needed for a register-based census were taken from the Tax Administration's registers, pension register and student registers.

In connection with the 1985 census a large parallel study was made to compare how much the population census data based on questionnaire inquiries and those formed on the basis of registers differ from one another. The comparisons showed that the statistics produced by means of registers were as reliable as those derived by direct data collection.

Finland the second country in the world to start register-based censuses

In 1990 the population census was already conducted totally on the basis of register data. Finland was the second country after Denmark to make the population and housing census using only data collected from registers and administrative records. Starting from 1990, data from over 30 registers have been used for population censuses.

Register-based population censuses have made it possible to produce now all population census data yearly. Register-based censuses are also considerably cheaper to carry out than form-based censuses even if made every year. The total costs of a conventional population census would be in Finland around EUR 50 million, while the additional costs for one register census are around EUR one million.

Annual population census data have been collected for over 20 years to the data warehouse, which opens new opportunities to statistics producers for the compilation of statistics and nearly inexhaustible study data for researchers. It is another important asset for register-based censuses that people need not be bothered at all by the census.

The year 2010 an international census year

The year 2010 was an international census year: population and dwelling censuses are carried out globally in nearly all countries of the world between 2010 and 2011. The census recommendations issued by the UN and the EU have steered the information content of the population and dwelling census. Before the 2010 census, the EU issued a regulation that gives more binding specifications than before on the information content of population censuses in the EU area. Countries can still collect information from the censuses for their national needs as well.

In Finland the population census is carried out now almost in the similar way as in other years, but the new information needs specified in the EU regulation are taken into consideration in the collection of data.

The writer is Pekka Myrskylä, Head of Development at Statistics Finland's Population Statistics Department


Luther, Georg (1993). Suomen tilastotoimen historia vuoteen 1970. (History of Finland's official statistics until 1970; in Finnish only). Statistics Finland.

Nieminen, Mauri (1999). Väestötilastoja 250 vuotta. Katsaus väestötilaston historiaan vuosina 1749 –1999. (250 years of population statistics. Review of the history of population statistics between 1749 and 1999; in Finnish only). Population 1999:8. Statistics Finland.

Use of Registers and Administrative Data Sources for Statistical Purposes. Best Practices of Statistics Finland. Handbooks 45. Statistics Finland (2004).

Links: Study material of eCourse in Statistics: History of Finland's population statistics


Last updated 28.3.2011