History always has a way of capturing our attention. The chimney sweeping trade has an interesting past and some fun facts that aren’t widely known.
Question: Did you know why chimney sweeps used to dress up in such formal tuxedos?
Answer: The cheapest clothes available to sweeps were undertakers clothes!
Pattercant is a form of slang that chimney sweeps would use to communicate with each other and test each other to see how long the other guy had been in the trade.
“If one sweep met another strange member of the trade, to detect whether he was a greenhorn, as a novice was termed, the first would say, “Can you patter cant? (speak slang)?” and, if a veteran, the stranger would reply, “Oh, yes, I know; nix is nothing, and a penny roll is a win buster,” and directly they were hail friends well met. Doubtless the slang helped them occasionally to cover mischievous designs, as their cant words of warning were given to the rogue in time to escape with stolen booty, ere the owner, who is termed the splorger, or the skuffer, a cant name for police, understood that was the man they should have arrested. In another case, where the master sweep had the boy up a chimney difficult to ascend, and the mistress had refused to give as much for the sweeping as he demanded, he would put his head under the cloth before the grate, and call out, “Now, boy, are you near the top?” when an indistinct reply descended, which indicated he was not getting on very well. “That’s right, my lad, pike the lew,” meaning burk the top; then the lad would cry, “All up,” and come gently down, leaving the top part of the chimney full of sooty for some other better-paid sweep to clear away. But the mistress was not always to be deceived like that; she would insist upon seeing the boy’s head or scraper out at the top of the chimney, and slang words were of no avail at such times. Housekeepers, as a rule, had an unjust suspicion of chimney-sweeps’ movements while on their premises, therefore how needful it was they could apprise each other of the keen observation. Who could blame them, if they pattered cant – this, talked slang – in order to avoid running any risks?
History is fun, especially when looking at an old trade like chimney sweeping history!