The neighborhood of Southwark around Bethel Burying Ground would ring out every day with the cry of “Sweep-oh!” Usually from the “shrill piercing voice” of a soot-covered child as he advertised the services of a chimney sweep. His life was hard and sometimes fatal. The smaller and younger was all the better for the master sweep to force and prod the youngster past the flue and fire shelf that were situated right above the hearth. If the child survived into adolescence he would be at a high risk of dying from lung diseases or “Chimney-sweep Cancer.”*
The children entered into the trade from the workhouse and almshouses or were bartered into a seven-year “apprenticeship” by their parents. Richard Allen started his chimney sweep business in 1789, before his calling to the ministry, and as a master sweep proved to be a hard taskmaster. Richard S. Newman documents this in detail in his biography of Allen, “Freedom’s Prophet.” Allen maintained numerous indentured servants that were given the title “apprentice” in return for their back-breaking labors. Not all complied with their master’s demands, as there were runaways and a formal complaint against the future preacher’s management style. However, it was only one of the few ways open to Black men to make them rich. White men did not want to do the sweep’s job and there was a constant demand to have the thousands of chimneys kept safe from fire. According to Newman, Allen professed to his indentured servants that hard work was the quickest way a Black person could “uplift” their status in the white community.
At one point Mr. John Davis, a Black entrepreneur, “employed 28 youngers, indentured from the Guardians of the Poor, out of a headquarters in an alley off Walnut Street.” (William Dorsey’sPhiladelphia & Ours by Roger Lane, p. 115.)
*Chimney Sweeps’ carcinoma was a form of skin cancer affecting the scrotum. Its name derives from the fact that it was first noted occurring among chimney sweeps – young men in their late teens and early twenties who had worked with soot for most of their lives. The disease was first identified in 1775 and if left untreated, the warts developed into a deadly scrotal cancer. The only treatment at the time was the cutting out the diseased body parts. (Proceedings of the Pathological Society of Philadelphia, vol. 15-22, p. 22.)
For further reading on the subject see Philadelphia History, Volume II, 92-93 (published by the City History Society of Philadelphia, 1916).