Why Did Chimney Sweeps Wear Top Hat and Tails?


What happens when the word chimney sweep comes to mind? Many people instantly think of the singing, dancing chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins. What a life! Jumping from roof top to roof top, singing and dancing. Not to mention, all decked out in top hat and tails. This romanticized version of the sweeps’ life was almost enough to make you want to go out become one. The truth, however, wasn’t quite so happy or romantic.

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Early on in the eleventh century in Europe, people began to build two story homes. So, with this development in architecture, a fire in the middle of the floor no longer sufficed. The smoke needed to be funneled out of the home. However, the only way to accomplish this was by building an enclosed fireplace and chimney. It didn’t take long for people to realize that the inside of the chimney became filled with soot. Consequently, this soot build-up could lead to a dangerous chimney fire.

The solution? Find a way to clean the chimney. Thus began the new occupation of chimney sweeps. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, new regulations demanded smaller chimneys, and the chimney sweep professionals needed a smaller body to fit into the chimneys to clean them. The solution was to find young boys (and sometimes girls) to be their apprentices, often as young as 6 years old, and sometimes even younger.

A Dangerous Life

The life of these young children who were apprenticed (or sometimes bought) to become chimney sweeps was far from romantic. They were required to climb up the dirty chimney, wearing a hat that would brush the soot off the walls of the chimney, causing it to fall down onto the floor of the fireplace. Sweeps also scraped the walls to get any stubborn creosote off the interior. Once they reached the top, the sweep would then slide quickly back down the chimney onto the pile of soot, then bag it up to finish the cleaning process.

Why Top Hats and Tails?

There are several stories about why sweeps wear top hat and tails. The most common stories revolve around undertakers. It is said that undertakers took pity on the young children doing this job, and gave them the hats and tails they were going to throw out as a way to make the children feel better about their status. Another legend has it that in London, in the 1700’s, King George was riding his horse when it became startled by a barking dog. A sweep grabbed a hold of the reins, calming the horse and preventing a catastrophe. The grateful king declared that, from then on, sweeps would be considered lucky. It is most likely that this is where the link to top hats occurred.

Today’s Chimney Sweeps

Today’s chimney sweep is a far cry from the young child from long ago. Protective equipment is worn, safety regulations are in place, and the hazards that existed then have been prevented. But this doesn’t take anything away from the skill required of these professionals. They do an important job to keep other people safe, and the CSIA certified experts at Pozzi Chimney Service are among the best of the best. We do the job right!