“Chim Chimney, Chim Chimney, Chim Chim Cher-ee!”
These iconic song lyrics call to mind the quintessential chimney sweep Bert featured in the musical Mary Poppins. As long as there have been chimneys, the ash and soot they leave behind after a fire has needed to be cleared away. Chimneys build up creosote which can restrict airflow, and even catch fire inside the chimney. Chimney sweeps perform the crucial job of keeping your chimney clean and safe, and are still needed for chimneys today. While we might not be performing song and dance on your roof, Chimney Care Plus is here to take care of all your chimney care needs — folks throughout Western Maryland count on us to keep their chimneys clean. Now let’s take a look at the humble history of the chimney sweep.
Demand for Chimney Sweeps
During the Industrial Revolution, with cities in Europe growing at an unprecedented pace, the number of houses with chimneys also exploded. Whereas most homeowners had taken care of their own chimney care prior to this time, it was becoming impossible for the common person to manage their chimney. A switch from primarily wood fires, to coal-heated homes happened at this time as well, and coal left a much stickier, thicker coating on the walls of the chimney than wood had. The need for chimney sweeps was essential, as buildings were being constructed taller than before, and the chimneys could become very narrow and take many turns before exiting the roof. Unlike today, these chimneys were cleaned by climbing upwards and cleaning as one went. This led to the group of children trained to do this dangerous, dirty work who were known as the “climbing boys”.
Boys could start their apprenticeship as early as age four, and would climb extremely narrow chimneys that could still be hot. There was a constant risk of getting stuck in a flue, and only children were small enough to fit in these narrow spaces. The master sweep would hire the children as apprentices, and they were often orphans or paupers from a local parish. Some of these children were sold into work by their destitute parents for very little money. After their apprenticeship was complete, after seven years, one could become a journeyman sweep and would still continue to work under a master sweep.
Although it seems preposterous to us now, these boys would be given some sort of cleaning brush or rag, and wedge themselves in the chimney and inch their way upwards, cleaning and scraping. All of the soot they were cleaning would fall on them as they made their way upward, and, finally reaching the top, they would slide back down. Now they had the task of cleaning up everything they had just scraped off, and bringing it back to be sold. Although soot was valuable at the time, the climbing boys saw none of the money, but they were housed and fed by their master sweeps. They often slept on the same sacks that held the soot, this was known as “sleeping black.” Not surprisingly, this led to many health issues from constant exposure to soot.
Something called Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer plagued these boys who had been so close to carcinogenic soot their entire lives. It claimed many boys lives at young ages, and greatly diminished their quality of life.
Regulations and Inventions
In the 18th century there was a push to have some regulations on Chimney Sweeps, and in particular the young boys who climbed the chimneys. In 1840 it became illegal for anyone under 21 to be a chimney sweep, however this was mostly disregarded. Another act in 1875 finally gave police the power to enforce regulations regarding sweepers, and this finally turned the tide of unregulated use of children in this dangerous job.
Around this same time, several inventions were made to assist in cleaning chimneys. One was an iron ball and rope system that started at the top of the chimney and cleaned all the way to the bottom by pushing a brush down the chimney using the weight of the iron. This method is still used in Scotland today. Equipment was also invented that had a set of rods and brushes that extended and could clean chimneys thoroughly without having to climb inside of them. These inventions were not so different from some of the equipment used today to keep homeowner’s chimneys clean.
Rethinking that historical cheery image of the chimney sweep? Although the profession has been romanticized, it was, in the past, a dangerous and mostly unregulated job. Thankfully, today we have regulations and codes that enable chimneys to be safe, and be safely cleaned. Fireplaces and woodstoves are mainly seen as secondary to most home’s heating systems in the United States today, as gas and electricity have become the primary source of heating homes. Whether they are used every day or not, you still need to ensure that your chimney is clean and safe. The chimney sweeps of today can do more than just clean your chimney, they can diagnose problems and perform preventative maintenance to ensure that you can use your fireplace or woodstove knowing that it is clean and safe.
At Chimney Care Plus LLC, we are a small, family-owned company whose chimney sweeps care about providing you with not just a clean chimney, but with all of the knowledge and information you need to properly maintain your chimney. If you are considering cleaning your chimney, or want more information about chimney care, call us today to schedule an inspection. We offer chimney sweep services for homeowners in Frederick, Mt. Airy, Hagerstown, Myersville, and the surrounding areas.