Chimney Sweep

Is This the Finish of Switzerland’s Chimney Sweep ‘Mafia’?

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buy Lyrica online india Imagine opening your front door still in pajamas, on a frosty Swiss morning, only to find a man dressed all in black staring at you. Anthracite pants, top hat and boots, a small broom and a dustpan peeked out of his pocket. He waves an official-looking document in the air and insists on entering your house. A little amused you wave the chimney sweep in.

Such encounters are the order of the day in Switzerland, where these men and women in black are jokingly called “chimney sweep mafia” – “mafia” because they seem to be exempt from all rules. In some cantons they can show up at short notice, enter your house and bill you for the privilege. Everything is state sanctioned: the cantonal government hires a chimney sweep – or a small, often family-run business – to look after a certain geographic area, and all other chimney sweeps are prohibited from working there. The government also sets the price for their service (starting at around $ 100), and residents are required by law to have their chimneys swept every year or so. This type of monopoly is most unusual in a capitalist state where virtually every other profession is subject to the norms of free market competition.

Swiss chimney sweep protection is steeped in history and was developed to protect citizens from a very real fire hazard. Wood burned in a fireplace often does not receive adequate ventilation, which leads to incomplete combustion. The resulting fumes produce a toxic, tar-like substance called creosote, which hardens in chimneys and can explode at inopportune moments. Creosote, for example, probably contributed to the severity of the Great Fire of Bern in 1405, which destroyed more than 600 buildings and killed 100 residents. The Swiss government believed that chimney sweeps and their monopoly would help prevent these devastating fires from happening again.

A Swiss chimney sweep in traditional black hat skis at work in St. Moritz, around 1935 (left); the chimney sweeps who work on the roofs of Lauterbrunnen today still wear completely black uniforms, but no longer have a hat (right). Imagno / Getty Images; Marion Bernet for Atlas Obscura

Until recently, they weren’t the only ones either. The neighboring Germany and Austria did not liberalize their own chimney sweep monopolies until 2013 and 2015, respectively, because the monopolies were increasingly criticized for violating EU competition law. As an EU outsider, Switzerland is not under pressure. Nevertheless, the chimney sweep mafia could slowly become obsolete. Slightly more than half of the Swiss cantons have overturned their chimney sweep monopoly, which had existed for over 100 years – a change that has allowed chimney sweep companies to expand and makes the supposedly antiquated profession an attractive career option for young Swiss.

The training to become a chimney sweep in Switzerland is rigorous and consists of at least three years of apprenticeship with the option of the master’s level. Far from the sooty cliché on the roof, a modern Swiss chimney sweep advises on the safe, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient operation of all types of firing and heating systems, both in residential and industrial buildings. Brooms give way to dust and water vacuums, steel brushes and high-pressure cleaners. Even the uniforms have been updated to simple black pants and shirts.

A chimney sweep can inspect five to six heating systems per day, depending on their size.  Graf cleans a wood stove here, which the chimney sweep needs to visit twice a year.A chimney sweep can inspect five to six heating systems per day, depending on their size. Graf cleans a wood stove here, which the chimney sweep needs to visit twice a year. Marion Bernet for Atlas Obscura

Twenty-year-old Martina Graf is perhaps the best proof that chimney sweeps are not just a relic of the past. Growing up on a traditional dairy with a spectacular view of the waterfalls that plunge down the Lauterbrunnen valley, Graf had certain criteria for her future career. “I always wanted a physical job where I could be outside and not have to drive far to work,” she says. That was chimney sweep. Today she works in a small family business with five sweeps, three women and two men.

The chimney sweep monopoly ended at the beginning of the year in Graf’s canton of Bern. For Graf, the increased competition means less work and more travel, at least temporarily. “It’s also interesting to go further afield and see how things work in other places … but actually I found it better before when everyone had their own area and knew everything,” she says. Perhaps that is why parts of Switzerland are still embracing the chimney sweep mafia. It’s nice to see a familiar smeared face every year and to build local relationships. “If you can go inside, there is often coffee, maybe something to eat,” says Graff. “That always saves my day.”

Another possible explanation for why chimney sweeps still have a monopoly in many cantons: They are considered a symbol of luck. In Switzerland today it is not uncommon to buy a lucky four-leaf clover in the supermarket, which is decorated with a tiny black swing figure that protrudes from the earth. Older residents remember the days when just looking at or touching a chimney sweep was good luck.

Brooms are no longer the main tool in the chimney sweep's kit.  Modern heating systems also require dust and water vacuums, steel brushes and high-pressure cleaners. 
Brooms are no longer the main tool in the chimney sweep’s kit. Modern heating systems also require dust and water vacuums, steel brushes and high-pressure cleaners.
Marion Bernet for Atlas Obscura

It’s an unexpectedly happy connotation for a job with a difficult history. If you were a particularly young boy between the ages of six and eight in Italian-speaking Switzerland in the 18th century and were unlucky enough to come from a poor family, the chimney sweep was perhaps your worst nightmare. Hundreds of small sweepers were recruited to handle the sweeping season from September to April. When cleaning chimneys, which were considered too narrow for adults, their heads were often covered with a “capruza”, a hood without eye holes, to protect them from soot and dust if they scratched in the dark with a rasp and a brush.

“They went barefoot into the chimneys, supported themselves with knees and elbows … until they had scratched themselves” [the creosote] everything off. They were given little to eat. It was a terrible exploitation, ”says Anita Hofer. Hofer is Vice President of the Chimney Sweep Association in Italy and heads the Spazzocamino (Chimney Sweep) Museum in Santa Maria Maggiore just across the Swiss-Italian border. The practice lasted about 100 years, until about 1930, and the story is retold in pictures, songs, and first-person stories on the second floor of the museum. The humble exhibit is off a cobblestone street and behind the stone church in Santa Maria Maggiore; it is easy to recognize by the shadow figures that adorn the roof. The museum is both a celebration of the profession and a haunting reminder of its checkered history.

Before the chimney sweep monopoly in the canton of Bern ended, Graf was one of the few sweepers allowed to work in her hometown of Lauterbrunnen.Before the chimney sweep monopoly in the canton of Bern ended, Graf was one of the few sweepers allowed to work in her hometown of Lauterbrunnen. Marion Bernet for Atlas Obscura

The victims of the little sweepers have not been forgotten by their successors. You are reminded every year at the International Chimney Sweep Festival in Santa Maria Maggiore for three days on the first weekend of September. The celebrations attract around 1,000 chimney sweeps from 26 different countries, including Japan and the United States. The festival also attracts thousands of curious visitors who gather to watch the chimney sweep parade in their traditional costume with soot-black faces. Keep an eye out for the night owls with black top hats and red scarves around their necks, an enduring symbol of the Swiss chimney sweep mafia.

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