Abstract There is currently a great deal of interest in the role that cytokines may play in the processes mediating preterm as well as normal term labour. In case of preterm delivery a cause–effect relationship between infection, uncontrollable preterm labour, and increased uterine cytokine concentrations is widely accepted, but there is considerable information that increased uterine cytokine release is also a condition in normal term labour and preterm labour not due to infection. Thereby, the exact cellular sources of cytokine production have not yet been identified. In the present study, the authors used immunohistochemical analysis to localize interleukin 1β (IL-1β) interleukin 6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factor α (TNF-α) immunoreactivity within trophoblastic villi and fetal membranes. In the absence of chorioamnionitis, uncontrollable preterm labour, and also normal term labour was associated with strong immunoreactivity for IL-1β and IL-6 in the endothelial cells within trophoblastic villi. In contrast, preterm delivery accompanied by histologically confirmed chorioamnionitis, was not associated with increased expression of cytokine antigens within endothelial cells of the fetal vascular system, but strong cytokine activity was found in polymorphonuclear cells infiltrating the amniochorionic membranes. Therefore, the data suggest two well-defined subgroups among patients delivering preterm. Thereby, increased uterine cytokine concentrations may be realized in both groups, but the cellular sources of cytokine production may be different.