French Chimney Sweeps

French Chimney Sweep, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

French chimney sweeps, known as le ramoneur, were usually young boys between the age of eight and ten years old. They carried their licenses in their soot bag and lived a hard life. One nineteenth-century person called them “wretched little beings,” and another gave a description of the chimney sweep’s life in the following way:

“The poor child must resign himself to become, during an hour or two, dumb, blind, and half-choked and deafened by soot; he must entomb himself alive, in a kind of sepulchre; he must climb scratch and cling, and hoist himself up, until his comrade on the roof, perceives the tip of his little soot-begrimed nose over the ridge of the chimney pot.”

French Chimney Sweeps: Louis Napoleon
Louis Napoleon as Emperor of the French, Courtesy of Wikipedia

One anecdote about a soot begrimmed chimney sweep is associated with Louis Napoleon. Louis Napoleon was nephew to the great Napoleon Bonaparte and became Napoleon III, Emperor of the Second French Empire. When Louis Napoleon was young, the first time he saw a chimney sweep, the boy was completely blackened. It scared 4-year-old Louis Napoleon so much he threw himself into the arms of his governess, who then explained the chimney sweep’s plight. A few months later, Louis Napoleon was asleep in his room, when suddenly another blackened chimney sweep descended the chimney and popped out frightening Louis Napoleon awake. This time, however, having heard the story from his governess, Louis Napoleon supposedly “climbed over the railings of his cot, and running across the room … took forth from a drawer his pocket money, and gave it, purse and all, to the little sweep.” 

Not all chimney sweeps were so lucky as the one that met Louis Napoleon. In fact, the chimney sweep’s job was fraught with dangers. They had to fit through narrow apertures and were said to occasionally get stuck in chimneys, which could be disastrous:

“He sticks by the way, caught, as it were, like a fox in a trap; when cries aloud, ‘Help, help!’ and often, the only means to effect his liberation, is to break a hole through the brick work. It sometimes happens that the poor boy has not time to raise his voice; his breast is oppressed, his young and delicate lungs are denied a necessary supply of fresh air, and his strength gives way, and he dies of asphyxia.” 

Despite the dangers, many boys wanted to pursue a career as a chimney sweep. One reason children performed the job of chimney sweep was because it required a small person and it was a lucrative well-paying job. For instance, 12-year-old chimney sweeps in Paris could earn nearly the same wages as an adult male, but not all chimney sweeps found the profession lucrative. Savoy chimney sweeps supposedly earned nothing. They usually began their apprenticeships under masters that were traveling tinkers or rabbit skin dealers, and according to one source:

“They [the tinkers or rabbit skin dealers] make every boy hand over to them his earnings, without deducting a single farthing, on pain of a merciless flogging, and allow him only about six sols a day. … [the chimney sweeps] scarcely ever [taste] meat or soup, and [live] on potatoes and decayed fruit. Hence their bodies are thin, rickety, and incapable of bearing fatigue; their limbs lack strength and their hearts courage.”

Chimney Sweep Apprentice with His Master Chimney Sweep in Italy at the End of the 19th Century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most French chimney sweeps came from either Piedmont or Savoy. For that reason, a chimney sweep in Paris was usually called a “Piedmontese” or “Savoyard.” Piedmont was claimed to provide “more climbing boys than all [of] France.” Part of the reason Piedmontese chimney sweeps were popular was that they were said to be robust, intelligent, and lively boys. Besides providing most of the chimney sweeps, Piedmont was also noted to have monopolized the chimney trade to such a degree the area developed a lucrative trade in master chimney-sweepers, with the majority of chimney sweepers coming from a town called Domo D’Ossola.

The chimney sweeps from Domo D’Ossola were said to have made their debuts in the Italian city of Milan. Although Paris was usually the final destination for the chimney sweep, Milan allowed chimney sweeps to develop and hone their skills thereby allowing them to deal with the “narrow, sloping and almost inaccessible chimneys of the French capital.” In addition, the chimney sweep’s career in Paris was planned well in advance by the master-sweeps, as noted:

“He meets a numerous colony of his countrymen, and soon grows accustomed to the French language, as spoken with an admixture of the terminations of his native idiom in the upper journeymen, he finds guides and instructors, and kind friends, who lighten his task, and smooth the first difficulties of his apprenticeship. Thus assisted by his countrymen, the Piedmontese has chances of advancement and success, that climbing boys from other countries would in vain look for. They are, indeed, the spoiled children of the profession.”

Obtaining customers for the chimney sweep in Paris was said to be as easy as walking down the streets. At least that was the claim by one writer who noted that he found an extract from the fifteenth century that stated:

“Then shall you see some Piedmontese
Scarce hatched from the shell,
Crying: — ‘I sweep high and low
Your chimneys without ladder.'”

Chimney Sweep Accompanied by His Dog in the Country, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

By the mid to late 1800s, jobs for chimney sweeps were becoming less common. This was because the first mechanical sweeping machine was invented in 1803 by George Smart, and although people initially resisted the idea of something mechanical cleaning their chimneys, it soon proved to be a more efficient means of cleaning than having a chimney sweep accomplish the task. This was noted by one historian:

“The progress of machinery, which levels and simplifies everything, will soon suppress the chimney-sweeper, as it has suppressed so many other living machines; the journeyman baker, the journeyman printer, the journeyman chocolatemaker, cotton-spinner, waggoner, groom, horse-dealer, and coachman to wit. Sooner or later, steam will supersede the climbing boy; and how should it be otherwise? Are not steam and smoke twin sisters? We shall live to see ‘self-sweeping’ chimneys in use.”

References:

  • Betham-Edwards, Matilda, France of To-day, 1894
  • Good Company, Volume 7, 1881
  • Percy, Reuben and John Timbs, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 35, 1840
  • St. John, Augustus, Louis Napoleon, Emperor of the French, 1857

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