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Chimney sweeps fading to black

No matter how dirty, no matter how covered in soot he may be, a chimney sweep walking down a Slovak street is certain to brighten and enliven his surroundings.
With a rich tradition dating back to the 17th century, Slovak chimney sweeps have always been regarded as bearers of good luck. By touching a chimney sweep's button, it is still believed, one can make one's wishes come true. Indeed, whenever they see a chimney sweep today, few Slovaks pass up the opportunity to make a wish.
"The tradition of us bringing good luck comes from the times when houses had roofs of wood or hay," says 58 year-old Alexander Tartóth, one of 18 chimney sweeps in Bratislava. "Chimneys would often spit out burning embers which could cause serious fires to such roofs. By regularly sweeping out the chimneys, the old sweeps reduced the chance of fire. Therefore, we became a symbol of luck."


Chimney sweeps are believed to be symbols of good luck.
photo: Henrieta Petrovičová

No matter how dirty, no matter how covered in soot he may be, a chimney sweep walking down a Slovak street is certain to brighten and enliven his surroundings.

With a rich tradition dating back to the 17th century, Slovak chimney sweeps have always been regarded as bearers of good luck. By touching a chimney sweep's button, it is still believed, one can make one's wishes come true. Indeed, whenever they see a chimney sweep today, few Slovaks pass up the opportunity to make a wish.

"The tradition of us bringing good luck comes from the times when houses had roofs of wood or hay," says 58 year-old Alexander Tartóth, one of 18 chimney sweeps in Bratislava. "Chimneys would often spit out burning embers which could cause serious fires to such roofs. By regularly sweeping out the chimneys, the old sweeps reduced the chance of fire. Therefore, we became a symbol of luck."

But their own luck may be running out, leaving their storied past in danger of fading to obscurity. With buildings now constructed of less flammable materials, demand for chimney sweeps is down, modern chimney sweeps agree. Furthermore, new recruits are hard to come by, they say, a lack of new blood which is thinning the aging workforce.

The Slovak Chimney Sweep Association in Dolný Kubín today registers 224 sweeps, a third of what it was 55 years ago. All of the 18 chimney sweeps working in Bratislava are over 50, and there is not a single young apprentice. "In 10 years, there may be no chimney sweeps left in Bratislava," says Tartóth.

Misfortune has also had a hand in the profession's demise: in 1993, for example, the Chimney Sweep Academy in Bratislava was closed when its roof burned down after faulty electrical wiring caused a blaze.

With the building left uninhabitable, the only remaining vocational training course for would-be Slovak chimney sweeps is in Banská Bystrica, where a course lasts six months (November to April). During the training, sweeps are put through 560 hours of practical preparation and 340 hours of theory, including chemistry, ecology, economy, sweeping techniques and the technology for measuring poisonous gases.

Ten students (aged between 20 and 56) attended and passed the course this year, collecting certificates allowing them to perform chimney sweep duties professionally. It is hoped that by encouraging unemployed family members of the graduates (Slovakia has a 20% unemployment rate), future classes will be larger.

"We are trying to encourage members of our Chimney Sweep Association to persuade unemployed sons, grandsons, or sons-in-law to take the course, and become entrepreneurs in the chimney sweep business," said Peter Šulan, the head of the Chimney Sweep Association. "It's easier for them to get into the business when it's a family tradition."

In another attempt at boosting its ranks, chimney sweeps have extended their duties to non-traditional areas. Gas furnaces and crematorium ovens, for example, are now checked and cleaned by chimney sweeps.

Rich roots

According to The Encyclopaedia of Slovak Folk Culture, a man named Bagnovíni became Slovakia's first chimney sweep in the 17th century. An Italian (as all chimney sweeps were at that time) from Milan, he marked the beginning of something big.

By 1748, a Chimney Sweep Guild had been established in Bratislava; five years later, no fewer than 17 Slovak towns had a resident chimney sweep. After World War I, the country boasted a total of some 700 chimney sweeps.

"Where I come from in Veľká Mača [a village 45 kilometres east of Bratislava today with a population of 2,500], there were 100 chimney sweeps," says Tartóth. "It was a chimney sweep hub for the whole of Slovakia."

Chimney sweep fever struck him, as it did two of his uncles, two cousins and a brother-in-law, all of whom became chimney sweeps. It became a family profession, passed on from one generation to the next.

But Tartóth says that it was the lure of the occupation's prestige rather than the family tradition which motivated him to become a chimney sweep. "At that time, being a chimney sweep was a very glamorous profession. When the sweeps came home from other towns, they wore nice outfits, and they had girls all around them. So I became a chimney sweep too."

The profession suffered during Communism when private businesses were closed down, leaving employees no choice but to join the komunálne služby (communal services). As a result, family chimney sweep traditions were disrupted and the numbers began to fall.

According to the Labour Ministry, the current minimum wage for a 'basic' chimney sweep - one who cleans only chimneys - is 4,600 Slovak crowns per month ($96), while the average monthly wage for sweeps who also clean gas furnaces and crematorium ovens earn 5,600 crowns. Peter Šulan of the Slovak Chimney Sweep Association, however, guessed that the average monthly wage was closer to 12,500 crowns after taxes.

Chimney sweep technologies have not changed much since the Italian Bagnivíni's arrival. "We still use the traditional brush," says Tartóth. "But now we have more equipment, for example, to measure the amount of dangerous gases in the chimneys."

Also vital for the chimney sweep is the trademark attire: the black chimney sweep outfit, black hat and abnormally large white collar. The collar, which in chimney sweep lingo is known as a 'respirator' or 'filter', is long enough for the sweeps to pull it up over nose and mouth, protecting their lungs. Once the white material is completely covered in soot, they know it's time for a new collar.

Besides equipment and costume, a proper chimney sweep must also be in good physical condition as the job demands that they climb up to their work tens of metres above street level.

"We don't do anything special to keep fit," says Tartóth. "We play football from time to time, and we work around the house daily. When climbing up on the roofs and chimneys, we just have to be extremely careful.

"When a person stumbles while walking on the ground, nothing happens," he adds. "But a chimney sweep can't even fall down once."

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