Written by Jeannie Swales
This little fellow from the Scarborough Collections is only about eight inches high, but weighs a ton – he’s cast iron – so is probably a doorstop.
Made in the late 19th or early 20th century, he may well have been given as a wedding gift, as chimney sweeps have long been associated with weddings, where their presence is said to bring good luck.
Why isn’t entirely clear. I’ve found several versions of a story involving King George II issuing a Royal Decree that sweeps were lucky after one leapt from the crowd and stopped his bolting horses and carriage during a state procession.
But that doesn’t explain the wedding tradition – to this day, many sweeps have a sideline in hiring themselves out to attend weddings, thereby ensuring that the bride would have a long and happy reign as mistress of hearth and home. It’s possible, though, that it may link to an earlier belief that linked ashes and soot with fertility.
Sweeps also have a longstanding and somewhat mysterious association with May Day. On his treasure trove of a website, the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon points us to the Every-Day Book, or Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements by Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784) for a description of the festivities:
“Here they are! The ‘sweeps’ are come! Here is the garland and the lord and lady! Poor fellows! This is their great festival. Their garland is a large cone of holly and ivy framed upon hoops, which gradually diminishes in size to an apex … within it is a man who walks wholly unseen, and hence the garland has the semblance of a moving hillock of evergreens. The chimney-sweepers’ jackets and hats are bedizened with gilt-embossed paper… Their lord and lady are magnificent indeed: he wears a huge cocked hat, fringed with yellow or red feathers, or laced with gold paper: his coat is between that of the full court dress, and the laced coat of the footman of quality … His lady is sometimes a strapping girl, though usually a boy in female attire, indescribably flaunty and gaudy; in her right hand a brass ladle…
“When the garland stops, my lord and lady… quicken into a dance… to the continued clatter of the shovel and brush held by each capering member of the sooty tribe. The dance concluded, my lord and lady interchange a bow and a curtsy; the little sootikins hold up their shovels, my lady with outstretched arm presents the bowl of the ladle, and ‘the smallest donations are thankfully received’ by all the sable fraternity.”
For a fuller account, visit: http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/94