History of Chimney Sweeps
CHIMNEY SWEEPS: History & Customs
Did you know that it's good luck to see a chimney sweep on your wedding day, and most especially to shake his hand or be kissed by him? Many chimney sweeps today are still invited to weddings to help assure a good start to a happy marriage. The tradition goes back, so it is said, to a chimney sweep who lost his footing and fell from a roof. He was caught on the gutter and hanging by his foot when a young lass, whose hand was intended for another, reached through the window and pulled him in, saving his life. They fell in love and the two were later married.
Pigs and chimney sweeps are linked together in tradition as good luck charms. It once was customary for the town chimney sweep to tote a pig through the streets on New Year's Day; people paid a small sum to make a wish while pulling a hair from the pig. You don't see us doing that any more, and I'm sure the pigs are pretty happy about that; they probably weren't so enthusiastic about the custom, despite how they are depicted here.
Again, the lucky little chimney sweeps are pictured here with good luck symbols - the horseshoe and shamrock.
Being a chimney sweep was not lucky for the little girls and boys who had this job in the 1700's to 1800's. They were a type of indentured servant, bought by the chimney sweep master. The master was to teach them the trade while being responsible for housing them. Their job was to actually climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, and they weren't done til their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often reluctant to perform as expected. Many masters used a dangerous punishment: the child was forced up the flue then a fire was lit. Since he couldn't come down, they had no choice but to climb up the flue. We think this is where the term "light a fire under you" originated.
These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sickly, and learned to beg handouts of food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters. The soot they collected was sold to farmers for fertilizer.
As seen in this picture, some chimney sweeps were girls, and these two are toting shamrocks for good luck.
Why did chimney sweeps wear tophats and tails? They are said to have most often gotten their clothing as cast-offs from funeral directors. The outfit was always a very practical black in color, and gave an air of distinction to a dirty, though necessary, job. Chimney sweeps often served double duty as the town's "nightman", whose job it was to clean out the privy. It is said that chimney sweeps wore slippers because they could be more easily removed, freeing the toes to aid their climbing grip.
Not many chimney sweeps carry on the tradition of tophats and tails as their standard attire these days, as many feel the garb demeans the seriousness of the jobs we perform, which are not only sweeping chimneys but performing repairs and maintenance of many types. (The topcoat tails also make it difficult to climb a ladder.) We all probably have them tucked away in the back of our closets and still can be convinced to wear them for weddings and photo ops.
Throughout the centuries, chimney sweeps have cared for the safety of the townfolk, performing one of those dirty jobs nobody likes to do. Most American cities had ordinances requiring regular chimney sweeping as a valuable safety service. Homes were located very close together and everyone burned wood or coal to heat and cook. Our job is as important today as ever but sweeps now care for chimneys serving a huge variety of home appliances and heating fuels.
So when you meet a sweep, remember to shake his hand for luck, for it's a safer home you have when you use the services of a professional chimney sweep.
Update: How to Hire a Chimney Sweep