It’s that time of year again – it’s annual chimney inspection time! As you watch a chimney technician from Owens Chimney Systems break out a cleaning brush and ascend the ladder to scope your chimney, the thought hits you: How did chimney sweeping even start?

Chimney sweeping is a necessary, albeit odd, task. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock that its origins are just as bizarre and, at times, dark. From unfortunate incidents with poultry to the disturbing rise of child exploitation, the history and evolution of chimney sweeping is a wild roller coaster ride.

Join us as we travel through time to revisit the beginnings of chimney sweeping. After you finish reading, be sure to take advantage of modern advances in the chimney industry by scheduling your yearly chimney inspection and sweeping with Owens Chimney Systems. Call us now at 704-686-8669 or get in touch with us online.

original infographic showing the history of the chimney sweep

Chimney Sweeping Industry: How It Started

The first signs of chimneys can be traced back to ancient Rome, but domestic chimneys didn’t appear in larger homes until the 12th century in northern Europe. However, they were uncommon in those earlier days. It wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that chimneys became a staple in most homes in the United Kingdom. 

With their growing prominence, the need to clean chimneys became more apparent. The Tudors – one of England’s royal families – had figured out that dirty chimneys could be unsafe and issued an ordinance in 1582 that mandated chimneys to be built from brick and stone, as opposed to plastered timber which was more common at the time. The order also required chimneys to be swept four times per year to keep soot from building up. If residents experienced a chimney fire, they would be fined.

To add insult to injury, England issued a hearth tax in 1662. The new tax law based the amount of money owed to the monarchy on the number of chimneys per household – instead of the number of people. Occupants were forced to pay two shillings per hearth annually. To get around the mandate and lower the tax bills, builders would often connect multiple flues to a single chimney. This caused soot to build up faster and made chimneys even more of a danger.


Chimney Sweeping in the Dark Ages

The hearth tax hit poor families the hardest as they relied on chimneys for meal preparation and warmth. But facing the devastating prospect of a chimney fire and ensuing fine, homeowners were desperate for affordable ways to clean their chimneys. Historians dispute when chimney sweeps first appeared on the scene, but many agree that chimney sweeping was more prevalent following the Great Fire of London in 1666. The fire went on for four days and nights, destroying over 13,000 houses, dozens of businesses, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although a chimney isn’t believed to have caused the Great Fire of London, it did directly contribute to an increased awareness of chimney safety.

Enter…the chimney sweep. 

Unlike today’s chimney professionals, historical chimney sweeps climbed into chimneys to clean them, and there was a big obstacle standing in their way: narrow chimneys. Without suitable tools to access and clean tighter chimneys, master sweeps turned to young boys – dubbed the climbing boys – to complete the job, taking apprentices as young as four years old.

Most of the children chosen to perform this dangerous task were orphans or from impoverished backgrounds in the United Kingdom. Many children went on to suffer from soot inhalation, and many developed a form of lung cancer called “chimney sweep’s cancer.” Despite public backlash, this practice continued well into the 19th century. Although George Smart invented the first mechanical sweeper in 1803, it was largely ignored. Finally in 1828, Joseph Glass invented the basic design of the chimney sweep brushes we still see today. 

Chimney Sweepers Act: Regulation & Reform

The Chimney Sweepers Act of 1788 sought to limit master sweepers to six apprentices, all of who must be at least 8 years old, in Great Britain, but law enforcement and government officials regularly usually looked the other way. In the years after, several laws were introduced, but ultimately failed to initiate major change. Eventually, though, the Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act of 1840 made it illegal in Great Britain for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys. 

The United States never had a nationwide law prohibiting children from sweeping chimneys, and the federal government didn’t have strong child labor laws in place until the 20th century. Fortunately, the use of child chimney sweeps saw a significant decline towards the end of the 19th century, likely due to the change in public opinion and technological advancements in chimney cleaning tools.

The Most Unusual Chimney Sweeping Practices

The Climbing Boys were an indisputably dark period in the history of chimney sweeps. It wasn’t the only unusual method that chimney sweeps deployed to clean chimneys, though. Some chimney sweeps in Europe, particularly in England, used geese and chickens for sweeping chimneys. They’d tie a rope around the goose’s or chicken’s neck and lower it down the chimney, with the intended outcome being that the bird flapping its wings would dislodge soot as it tried to fly out of the chimney against the pull of the rope.

There have also been stories that chimney sweeps used cats to clean chimneys, but there are no historical reports that can substantiate those claims, and it remains anecdotal speculation. Thankfully, modern chimney sweeping has progressed to the point where we no longer have to resort to inhumane tactics to safely use a chimney.

Don’t Forget to Book Your Annual Chimney Sweeping

Now that you’re an expert in the history of the chimney sweep, get acquainted with our modern methods! When it’s time for your annual chimney inspection and cleaning, reach out to Owens Chimney System. Call us now at 704-686-8669 or click here to book an appointment.