Chimneys more than dirty work

A dicey trip this winter from Portales to Clovis in search of hot vegetables brought back memories of being the 20-something editor in Cherokee Village, an Arkansas retirement/resort community.

One icy day I spotted two tuxedoed men twerking around the chimney of a picture-postcard cabin.

Wendel Sloan

Wendel Sloan

Since the biggest news in that Ozarks hamlet was usually who’d won the duplicate-bridge or dominoes tournament, this was a surefire, front-page feature.

After sliding to the side of the hilly tree-lined road for a chilly interview, the brothers told me they were chimney sweeps. I felt silly since I thought chimney sweeps were cute little birds.

The clean-shaven gentleman said in the old days chimney sweeps wore castoff garments from landed gentry. The rich considered it good luck to give them their clothes.

The good-luck tradition began after a fire leveled London. People became aware that fireplaces were causing house fires, so the practice of sweeping chimneys began.

The bearded gentleman told me in those days chimneys were large enough to send small boys up on ladders to sweep them out.

It was a common practice for fathers to sell or indenture their children for this task. Their average age was usually 6 or 7, and their contracts generally ran for seven years.

However, the work was so dangerous many died.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” William Blake (1757-1827) immortalized them:

… As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight! … That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack … Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.

“And by came an Angel who had a bright key … And he open’d the coffins & set them all free …”

In 1938, FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act for the U.S. — which also protects minors.

Exceptions are granted for minors employed by parents, newspaper carriers, child actors and farmworkers — who can work unlimited hours and suffer fatalities five times greater than other working youths.


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