Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with estrogen alleviates menopausal symptoms and is effective in reducing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease when taken in early postmenopause. Older, late postmenopausal women who never previously received HRT are also believed to benefit from estrogen treatment. On the other hand, increased lifetime exposure of the mammary gland to estrogen may increase the risk of breast cancer. The development of suitable experimental animal model systems can advance our understanding of the effects of estrogen and the timing of HRT on the postmenopausal breast. Toward this end, early and late postmenopausal states were induced in mice by short vs. long term ovariectomy (1 vs. 5 weeks), and the effects of 17beta-estradiol (E) on mammary gland morphology, cell proliferation, and progesterone receptor (PR) levels were investigated. We report that in late postmenopausal mice, E caused a pronounced enlargement of duct ends and 6.5- and 4-fold greater mitogenic responses in the duct end epithelium and adjacent stromal cells, respectively, compared with the response in early postmenopausal mice. Furthermore, after long term, daily treatment with E, steady state levels of proliferation remained 2-fold higher than those of similarly treated, early postmenopausal mice. E failed to increase mammary PR levels in late postmenopausal, but not in early postmenopausal mice. Stimulation of duct ends by E and lack of PR inducibility are characteristics of the immature pubertal mammary gland and indicate that the late postmenopausal mammary gland resembled the immature state. In contrast, minimal E-induced proliferation and increased PR inducibility, characteristics of the adult, sexually mature mammary gland, were retained in early postmenopausal mice. The lack of difference in the numbers of estrogen receptor-positive epithelial or stromal cells or in estrogen receptor cellular concentration after short vs. long term ovariectomy indicates that the observed greater efficacy of E is mediated at a step beyond receptor-ligand binding. This mouse model of experimentally induced early vs. late postmenopausal states should prove useful in better understanding alterations in hormone responsiveness and their implications for timing of HRT on the human breast.