CBS: gauge of Dutch society for 125 years

/ Author: Ronald van der Bie
Group photo in front of CBS on Oostduinlaan, The Hague
Statistics Netherlands (CBS) celebrates its 125th anniversary this month. The bureau has been the principal supplier of reliable, independent statistics in the Netherlands since 1899. The establishment of CBS was also the moment the government laid a professional and institutional basis for statistical research. Since the very beginning, the census has been a permanent fixture of CBS’ publication programme. Initially, census information was used to check and update population registers. In the course of time the census covered more topics, going on to include questions on social issues such as the housing situation. Census information has thus gained an increasingly important role in the preparation and evaluation of government policy.

Foundation of CBS

What is the effect of poor housing on the morality of the people who live there? How many university graduates are there in the Netherlands? Just two examples of topics covered in the 125 years of CBS census statistics; the former early in the twentieth century, the latter in 1930. CBS was established on 9 January 1899 as the operational office of the Central Commission of Statistics, or CCS. The CCS was charged with collecting, processing and publishing statistics at the request of ministries and other public authorities. It was to do this ‘to support the government, to inform the legislator, to promote science, to edify the people’. So pronounced Minister of Home Affairs J.P.R. Tak van Poortvliet on the occasion of the installation of the commission on 22 November 1892. This gave statistics a well-established role in policy debate. Since then, the research and statistics produced by the CCS, and later CBS, have constituted the starting point for preparation and evaluation of government policy.

Topical issues

The census is one of oldest official statistics. Its history goes further back than the institution of CBS: the first census was held in 1795. It provides detailed information for the statistical description of the population: age composition, family size, occupation, religion, marital state, nationality. Up to 1849, census information was used only to compile population registers, and subsequently to check and update these registers. The census was also the first major publication CBS presented following its foundation. Since CBS took over responsibility for it, the census has become more and more important for the evaluation of government policy. To fulfil this role, each new census contained additional questions, for example about housing and the housing situation, and about educational attainment. By adding new and wide-ranging questions, statisticians hoped to demonstrate the magnitude and gravity of topical issues for which policy was urgently required.

CBS enumerator handing a questionnaire to a woman
© Nationaal Archief

CBS enumerator handing a questionnaire to a woman

Poor housing

One important theme was the poor housing conditions and the consequence of these for the moral standards that accompanied ‘cramped dwellings’: shared kitchens and bedrooms, and adolescent brothers and sisters sharing sleeping quarters (in 1909 CBS published a so-called ‘morality table’ on this aspect). Another example was the ‘exodus from the large cities’ and subsequent creation of commuter municipalities as a result of the housing shortage immediately after the Second World War. Information on the number of university graduates in the country had previously been identified as important, as the demand for higher educated supervisors, managers and executives was expected to grow quickly in the future. In 1930 CBS noted ‘an imbalance between the education of and demand for graduates’. Tables on numbers of graduates were available to inform the public debate on this topic. These tables comprised a breakdown by religious denomination, which revealed that relatively fewer Catholics had a degree in higher education.

Not just facts

CBS was soon of the opinion that it should do more than just publish facts from the statistics it produced. No ‘production of facts ad infinitum’, director general Philip Idenburg once wrote, CBS also had a duty to interpret developments in the figures: this was an inherent part of scientific research. In 1920, for example, CBS published a table showing how – as a result of improved mortality rates – life expectancy had increased since 1870, and by more for women than for men. But the figures also revealed that the increase had stagnated in the last ten years. CBS did not hesitate to explain what it thought the cause was: ‘For people over 15 years of age it may be related to the higher labour participation rates of women, where they are exposed to effects which men had already undergone before then.’

Electronic data exchange

For the 1971 census, tens of thousands of enumerators invariably took to the streets on the days preceding and the days following census day. They delivered the questionnaires to households, helped them complete the forms, and then collected them again. Since 1981 census data have been drawn from population registers, supplemented with data from sample surveys. Combining data from various registers to compile consistent tables comparable to those from previous door-to-door censuses was almost impossible until the advent of electronic data exchange technology. By far most of the data for the 2001, 2011 and 2021 censuses came from the Municipal Personal Records Database (BRP), supplemented with data from the System of Social Statistical Databases (SSB). Conducting a census has now become a desk job. Enumerators no longer need to bother the public, non-response is always zero, and the data are of a high quality.


Today, researchers can access Dutch census tables from their desks. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, in 1999, CBS digitised all the paper censuses held in the period 1795–1971. This project was conducted in collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and the Netherlands Institute for Scientific Information Services (NIWI), funded by CBS and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The 193 volumes containing over 42 thousand pages of tables and explanatory notes have all been processed. All tables and metadata can be accessed at Volkstellingen 1795-1971.