Google “chimney sweep” in your browser and you will discover dozens of chimney services, from cleaning to repair to relining. In pre-Industrial America the urban areas were packed closely with homes that sported chimneys. Hence the need for a chimney sweep industry. In fact, fear of fire drove laws that required regular maintenance of chimneys. In Manchester, according to D. F. Lamson in History of Manchester, Mass. 1645-1895 he writes, “Chimneys were to be ‘Regularly and Seasonably Cleansed.’ The ‘firing’ of chimneys was to be at or nearly a calm time, when it shall actually rain or snow, and between the time of sun rising and twelve o’clock at noon.” There would be a stiff fine for offenders.
When we published this image three weeks ago, we assumed this photograph chronicled some event. Perhaps a Halloween where the local chimney sweep donned a top hat. Or maybe this was a local character known for creative accessorizing. Maybe it was an annual challenge. Nope, at least not from our responses. Or lack of responses. Turns out, top hats were an industry thing, with companies across the country using “top hats” to market chimney sweep companies. This is surely one of them, local to Manchester.
How did the chimney sweeping guild adopt the top hat? Well, there are several legends attributed to the wearing of top hats and tails by sweeps. One relates that it was helped along by 18th century funeral directors who took pity on the children forced to do the actual work of sweeping the narrow chimneys and that they gave them the top hats and tails of the deceased. Oh my. Then again, It was also said that the outfit gave the sweeps a “measure of pride” in their work, and the custom continues to this day.
Still another story said a chimney sweep was “lucky” to be at the scene of a potential carriage accident and saved the life of King George II, so the king proclaimed chimney sweeps were a sign of good luck. This characterization stuck and meeting a chimney sweep is said to bring luck to you.
Keep your eyes peeled and maybe you will be lucky enough to see a man in top hat and tails on a roof around town.