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From LDN's Fall Home Improvement Magazine

The history and folklore of chimney sweeps

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[September 27, 2013]  Mary Poppins certainly put a Cinderella spin on chimney sweeps. The whimsical story was most certainly not the life the real sweeps endured.

Oftentimes, chimney sweeps were mere children who were forced to work 12- to 16-hour days for no money in their pockets. Back in an era when everyone heated and cooked with wood or coal, the work of these children was a necessity.

Actually, the children were indentured servants bought from their parents or an orphanage. Their masters were to provide them with food and shelter, but that was greatly lacking. The children were relegated to the basement and fed scraps.

The children sought were usually around the age of 5 and sometimes as young as 4, but generally not over 8 years old. The younger children were desirable because they could literally climb up the chimneys, brushing and scraping as they climbed.

Soot was collected in a bag and sold to farmers as fertilizers. The bags also doubled as the children's blankets at night. The masters collected the money, and very little of it was given to the children, which resulted in them begging on the street corners.

Given the work conditions, the child chimney sweeps had terrible health problems, with many of them dying at a very young age. Many had respiratory problems due to the coal tar and soot. Also, because they were forced to climb in such close, contorted conditions, their ankles, backs and wrists were misshapen for life.

In America, many communities had laws that made it mandatory to have chimneys cleaned on a regular basis. Because homes were built so very close to one another, entire neighborhoods could be lost to fire.

Around 1865, laws were passed that didn't allow anyone under the age of 21 to work as a chimney sweep.

Today's chimney sweep offers no comparison with what their historical predecessors went through. But the folklore of their hard lifestyle still lives in urban legends in many areas.

The tradition of top hats and tails came from funeral directors taking pity and giving the sweeps their castoffs. And that was very practical, given the color of the clothes and the sooty job.

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It is also said that when the children wouldn't climb the chimneys, their masters would poke them with pins or sticks. Another custom was to build a small fire and force them to climb. Hence, the expression "put a fire under him" that still exists today.

And for whatever reason, the sweeps were believed to be good luck on a wedding day. Lore says that if a chimney sweep blessed the marriage, it brought long and happy lives to the couple.

The children would loiter around churches, hoping to make some money. Yet today, it is believed that to shake hands with or receive a kiss from a chimney sweep is good luck.

Perhaps it was the chimney sweeps themselves who came up with the kissing part, due to wanting to kiss a pretty young lady!

And, tradition shares that on New Year's Day they would carry a pig, and for a donation, you could make a wish and pluck a hair from the pig.

Be it real or legend, it is always kind of fun to know these peculiar bits of history. Now you have some icebreakers for the water cooler at the office. "Hey, did you know that chimney sweeps …"


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