Chimney sweeping is not a very well known nor well understood profession. Americans are generally unaware sweeps really exist. Most Americans who know of sweeps associate chimney sweeping with19th Century England and the most famous of all the sweeps – “Bert”, Mary Poppins’ friend who danced and sang on the rooftops of London.
But chimney sweeping in America is an important industry. There are literally millions of aging and delapidated chimneys across our country, and nobody knows those chimneys better then the people who service and repair them every day.
Lets start at the beginning – with the first sweeps…
17th Century London had a problem with houses catching fire and entire sections of town going up in flames. London’s residents burned wood year round to cook and heat, and had several chimneys on every home.
No one had their chimneys cleaned – no one knew they should.
Soon they discovered the association between dirty chimneys and the proliferation of house fires, and so began the role of the chimney sweep.
In London they used small boys and girls to climb the insides of the chimneys and use their bodies and brushes to knock down the soot and creosote which fueled the chimney fires. They free-climbed up inside of the dangerous chimneys without the help of ladders or ropes, and spent much of their days in the cold darkness breathing the dust and fumes from the soot and creosote.
These climbing boys and girls were very poor, often wearing rags and eating scraps. They answered to a man called a Sweep Master, who work them hard and gave no rewards.
The Irish, on the other hand, had their own ideas of how a chimney should be cleaned. They would tie a goose by the legs and lower it down the chimney. As the bird flapped furiously with its large wings it would knock loose the soot and creosote from the chimney.This practice helped save children from the task, and popularized the saying “The blacker the bird the cleaner the flue!”.
In early America the same problem of chimney fires existed and the early construction materials of mud and wood chimneys allowed the fires to spread even more quickly.
Sweeps were very hard to come by in Colonial America. Chimney sweeps had very low social standing in Europe and the settlers wanted a new start and do better for themselves so no one swept America’s chimneys.
Eventually towns had to offer special contracts and monopolies for sweeps, or use slave children to do the necessary work.
In the early 20th Century, with the advent of oil and gas heating and cooking, the chimney sweeping profession fell by the waist side in America. People no longer used their fireplaces for cooking and heating, instead relying on imported fuels.
That all changed during the energy crisis of the 1970’s. Americans looked to alternatives for heating their homes to help sever their reliance on foreign fuels. They turned back to our own naturally restorable resource of wood for fireplaces, woodstoves, and woodheaters.
With the resurgence of wood burning came the resurgence of chimney sweeping – except chimney sweeping had gone through many changes and has become a safe and profitable profession.
With the use of modern vacuums, equipment, safety devices and products, todays sweeps no longer expose themselves to the dangerous creosote. Powerful vacuums keep the home completely soot and dust free!
And as chimney sweeps cleaned America’s chimneys, they began to see what poor shape many chimneys were in. This led to very modern repair and restoration techniques, space-age materials for relining older and unsafe chimneys, and the advent of a yearly service program to maintain and keep safe the chimneys of those customers who realize the importance of sweeping.
Todays gas burning appliances have specific venting requirements whichare rarely met upon installation and the chimney sweep industry hasonce again taken up the slack and developed high-tech relining materials to properly match todays high efficiency furnace with their outdated chimneys.
Chimney sweeps remain a relied upon member of the community in Americaand Europe. Unlike in America, yearly chimney cleaning and inspectionsare often required by European law. In America it is “buyer-beware”,and the responsibility is left to the homeowner.