Chimney sweeping has been around just as long as chimneys have, which is about 700 years. Chimneys began replacing open hearth fires in the 12th century in Britain, and the “new technology” appears in archaeological records across europe around the same time. For the first few centuries we can assume that people cleaned their own chimneys, as population density was generally low. With the rise of “cities” in the 17th century, professional chimney sweeps became a necessity, and by the 18th century fire marshals were requiring certain standards for chimneys.
Somewhere along the way chimney sweeps became associated with good luck in Britain and in mainland europe. This is especially true in Germany, where the image of a victorian era sweep is a common good luck symbol, much like a four-leaf clover. In the 19th century it was customary for the town chimney sweep to carry a pig through the streets on New Year’s Day. People would come out from their homes and pay a small sum to make a wish while pulling a hair from the pig.
How this association between sweeps and luck came about, however, is quite unclear. The legend most commonly cited is that “in 1066 King William of Britain was pushed to safety by a chimney sweep as a runaway horse and carriage barreled toward him. The king rewarded the chimney sweep by declaring sweeps lucky and allowing chimney sweeps to wear top hats, which had previously been a custom reserved for the gentry and royalty.” There are a number of problems with this story. One, Chimneys didn’t exist in 1066. Two, carriages didn’t exist in Britain in 1066. And three, top hats didn’t exist in 1066. In fact, nearly everything now popularly associated with the history of chimney sweeps didn’t exist until the early 19th century.
Next time, on the Black Goose blog, we’ll explore the possible origins of this association starting in Wallonia (the German speaking area of modern Belgium).