18th Century Chimney Sweeps

Pen and Pension illustrates many of the hardships of life as a chimney sweep in the 18th century. Framing Childhood analyzes their presence in 18th century illustrations:

The presence of the chimney sweeps … is more physical and rebellious, even potentially violent. As freeborn Englishmen, albeit of a lower class, the sweeps act freely with their bodies. Even if they tend to appear on the margins of scenes, their exuberant gestures and movements identify them as active participants. As a consequence, they are rather outspoken satirical focalizers to all sorts of follies of urban society … [Chimney-sweeps in prints] perceived and represented as part of an adolescent subculture that had been associated with apprentices and urban ouths, and that was marked by potential subversiveness and riotousness. One might argue that by insisting on the physical character of the chimney sweeps the satirical prints also endorse their status as children, because children were associated with physicality. However, I would rather suggest that this physicality of the chimney sweeps, especially as expressed in their unrestrained body language, is more a matter of their lower-class habitus. Positioned in the margins of the prints (and society) these children are potentially rebellious, violent and prone to upheaval. They are an energetic force in the public, and prints use their presence to represent dissent. Through the representation of this dissent in a jocular manner, the imminent threat of these unruly children is simultaneously defused: the protest of the chimney sweeps becomes part of a carnivalized image of society. Lous and riotous as it is, its potential threat to order is always checked in the prints, as the sweeps appear only as children.

A supplement with trade cards for chimney sweeps also appears below. The trade card of Sparkes, Chimney-Sweeper & Nightman provides an explanation for the hats seen on some of the chimney sweeps in these illustrations; the boys under his employ wear “Braſs Plates on their Hats, with my Name as above,” which would help you verify that they were legitimate chimney-sweeps and not some other random urchins who may be up to no good. Josiah Hebart’s trade card reinforces this issue: “To prevent Impoſitions which frequently happen by Chimney-Sweepers going about in my name; pleaſe to employ none that calls at your Houſe, nor call any out of the Street, without looking at their Caps.” Abigail Beecher & Son, on the other hand, tells potential clients, “Those who Please to Employ us Look upon the Boys Shovels and there is our Names.”

The tools of the chimney-sweep – including shovels, brushes, and bags of soot removed from clients’ homes – are illustrated on trade cards for Thos Tattenham, Robert Southby, and Abig. Beecher & Son.

Trade cards

A selection of 18th century trade cards for chimney sweeps from the British Museum. Most are men, but some of the chimney-sweeping businesses are operated by women following the deaths of their husbands (e.g. Mary Wiggett and Mary Vinson) or fathers (e.g. Mary Angell/Mary Fatt) who had been chimney-sweeps.