Saturday, December 4, 2021

Switzerland’s Official Tradition of the Chimney Sweep Mafia

A clean home is every human’s desire, and cleaning up is difficult enough as-is. No,w imagine having an old-fashioned chimney to deal with too. But ask any Swiss citizen and they will have a different story to share. They have to deal with the infamous chimney sweep mafia, who can rule their homes and chimneys without any notice and even demand pay for it!

While there is nothing very sinister and mafiaesque about these chimney sweeps, the fact that they have a government-sanctioned monopoly over certain regions makes the residents of those regions bemoan this “service” provided by the chimney sweep mafia.

The need for chimney sweeps

This tradition of chimney sweeps was prevalent in the majority of European countries. The need for chimney sweeps was made mandatory in order to keep citizens safe from fires. In the older days, wood was used to keep the house warm during the colder seasons. But the complete combustion of wood was never possible because the burning wood never got a sufficient amount of oxygen. This led to incomplete burning of the wood and the formation of creosote. This creosote is a tar-like toxic substance that hardened up in the chimneys.

Aerial view of rooftops in Bern, the capital of Switzerland.
The incomplete burning of wood results in creosote buildup that can catch fire inside the chimney. (Image: Yiu Tung Lee via Dreamstime)

This substance is also believed to have played a critical role in Bern’s Great Fire that happened in 1405. The fire caused great devastation in the form of taking the lives of over 100 residents and destroying over 600 buildings. This caused the Swiss government to conceptualize the need for the monopoly of chimney sweeps. This led to the formation of the chimney sweep mafia, as generations of the same family spend their lives cleaning chimneys.

The monopoly and the dissatisfaction of the chimney sweep mafia

The need to keep chimneys free from creosote to prevent another great fire led the Swiss government to let a small company that was often run within a family take control of a canton. Such was the division that when one company was tasked with a particular area, other companies or even individual sweeps were not allowed to work in that particular area. This cantonal division that was sanctioned by the state led to a particular group of men and women taking their job very seriously. So seriously that they could turn up at your house without informing you a day before, take over your home and clean the chimneys, and you have to pay them the sum they charge. Thus the moniker chimney sweep mafia. No questions asked from your end. The government did set up a sum that started at US$100. The government also made it mandatory to have each house have its chimneys cleaned at least once every year.

Symbol of a chimney sweep as a good luck charm.
In Switzerland, chimney sweeps have had no free-market competition. (Image: Elmar Gubisch via Dreamstime)

According to the European Union competition law, the monopoly of a certain trade is prohibited. This has caused countries like Austria and Germany to do away with this monopoly. While there was a good intention behind this monopoly of chimney sweeps and the government’s support of the same, many European Union countries dismantled this monopoly. The exemption enjoyed by Switzerland has kept the chimney sweep mafia in business for a really long time.

The dissatisfaction faced by residents, especially because of the suddenness with which these sweeps operate, has caused various discussions to take place. But the government has stuck to its protection of the sweep companies and monopoly. This has also made being a chimney sweep a good career option for youngsters. They take training from a very young age and often certain skilled people are hired. This is despite the fact that most chimney sweep companies are family-run.

Even with the monopoly and Switzerland being the only country as of now to allow this monopoly, the task of becoming a chimney sweep is not easy. Twenty-year-old Martina Graf, a chimney sweep from Bern, narrates her experience as a professional chimney cleaner. She states the pros and cons of the dissolution of the monopoly. While she says that she gets to travel more and work in areas other than her canton, she also highlights that the monopoly did ensure that the sweeps knew the area well and could handle the work more efficiently.

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Armin Auctor
Armin Auctor is an author who has been writing for more than a decade, with his main focus on Lifestyle, personal development, and ethical subjects like the persecution of minorities in China and human rights.
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