It was understood that soot build-up was the cause of unwanted chimney fires from the time chimneys were first being used in Europe, beginning in the 1200s. Fireplaces were only heating one-room buildings, at the time, and chimneys were usually wide and easy to clean. However, over the next 400 years, chimneys changed. The flues became longer and narrower to accommodate for the increased number of rooms containing smaller fireplaces. Adult sweeps could no longer clean the flues and started sending children with brushes through the narrow passages, which sometimes measured as small as 9” x 9”.
An adult master sweep would apprentice orphans or poor children for this work. He would be responsible for their meals, a place to sleep and a weekly bath, but was accountable to no one for their care. Climbing children would burn, get stuck, suffocate, and experience stunted growth and deformity of their spines, arms and legs. Many climbing boys developed testicular cancer as early as their late teens.
In the early 1800s, London society members, concerned for children’s safety, made the first steps toward eliminating the need for climbing boys by holding a competition for the development of a chimney-flue-cleaning device. George Smart had the winning design of a long-segmented rod with a brush at the end that could be made rigid by pulling a cord. Even with this proven technology, people were reluctant to change. They knew that insufficient flue cleaning would put their home at risk for fire.
In 1840, laws in England were put in place that protected children from being employed as climbers, yet they weren’t strictly enforced until 1875. People in the United States continued to send black sweep boys up chimney flues for another 25 years.
(Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimney_sweep)