According to European folklore, chimney sweeps bring good luck to those who touch them, kiss them or have their chimneys swept.
By Kay Schwerzler
Remember Bert’s lyric in the Walt Disney movie “Mary Poppins”?
“Good luck will rub off when I shakes hands with you/Or blow me a kiss and that’s lucky, too!”
The English and Germans, among others, hire a sweep to appear at weddings. It’s good luck, they say, for a bride who sees a sweep walking toward her on her wedding day. It means she’ll have a long and happy marriage.Some attribute this lucky charm to the fact that sweeps balanced precariously on rooftops and dangled down chimneys yet lived to tell about it. Some say the luck’s in the hat, even though the original top hat and black tails were hand-me-downs from 15th Century undertakers.
Nevertheless, underneath the lore lies a very practical need. Chimneys have required cleaning since the first creosote clung to the first chimney walls that were developed in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. To take the nip out of the northern air, the new royalty and new rich built elaborate castles and two-story houses around central hearths that emitted smoke through a hole in the ceiling. After a short while, they moved their fireplaces to the outside walls where they hollowed out shafts from the hearth to the roof to allow the smoke and smudge to escape. Only the wealthy could afford chimneys at first.
But by the 1500s, chimneys were part of the heat source of choice in ordinary houses and other buildings throughout England, as well as Germany, France, Italy and other countries.
Chimney sweeping in Germany became a profession after cities passed laws in the late 1400s that homeowners had to have their chimneys cleaned at least twice a year to avoid flue fires. German sweeps banded together in a guild and established rules that are still on the books.
England’s early sweep trade wasn’t as organized as Germany’s. It relied on a little bit of luck and, especially in overcrowded London, on young boys. They were the only ones small and nimble enough to climb up and down the 9-by-14-inch flues mandated there in the 1700s. Charles Dickens documented their plight in his novel Oliver Twist.
Pioneer Americans used methods of chimney cleaning similar to those of the Old World: in the cities and villages and on plantations, small boys with brushes; and in the country, live geese or burlap bags of bricks that farmers dropped on a rope from the chimney top and yanked up and downlike yo-yos.
Over the years, Americans warmed to heat from a basement furnace fueled by oil or natural gas rather than from wood-burning units. But with the oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing energy crisis, more and more Americans turned again to wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
“With the 1973 oil embargo, gas shot from 34 cents a gallon to $1.34 overnight,” said John Bitner, executive director of the National Chimney Sweep Guild. “Wood stoves sold in the hundreds of thousands that first year, giving rise to fires in chimneys and wood stoves that went up from practically nothing to 151,000 in one year.”
Chimney sweeps were back in demand, and thousands of folks took up brooms and offered their services. There were those who wanted to work for themselves, who liked to work outdoors, who enjoyed seasonal work and those who appreciated the small capital investment required. Mostly, they taught themselves. Many were competent, others were not.
Continued concern about the qualifications of sweeps motivated the guild to form the Chimney Safety Institute of America in 1983 to train and certify sweeps. The trade is not regulated, and most states, including Illinois, do not license sweeps.