Chimney sweeping began with sending young boys up chimneys to clean out soot and debris that had collected over time. Able to fit up narrow shafts because of their small size, the health risks to which these boys were exposed were of no concern. Indeed, fires were lit under those who were reluctant to climb higher, giving birth to the familiar expression.
Many of these early chimney sweeps, these young boys, were orphans living in work houses. In the United States, they were the sons of slaves; in either case, they had no choice and no one to whom they could turn for help. Regulations had yet to come into place, so young boys climbed, breathed carcinogens, suffocated and died for clean chimneys.
Ironically, master sweeps were adults, too large to fit up the chimney, and their young apprentices were the actual chimney sweeps. Master sweeps were tasked with teaching their craft to young boys, who generally began to learn the trade at the age of six. They shimmied up chimneys, wide brushes held aloft, swept out the soot, and slid back down to the bottom where they bagged up the fallen soot.
The first chimneys appeared in England almost a thousand years ago but became widespread in the Industrial Age, from 1760 to 1840. As more houses were fitted with fireplaces and chimneys, the demand for chimney sweeps increased. It was not until the late 1800s, however, that regulations began to take hold in the United Kingdom. It was the turn of the century before American law began to protect chimney sweeps.
Mechanical brushes also appeared around the turn of the century, having been first conceived in 1803. An American, John Glass, is credited with offering the world the first real chimney sweeping machine in 1828. He also designed the stiff bristled brushes still used today by chimney sweeps to remove soot from the chimney.