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
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
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.