Chimney sweeps here in the Czech Republic dress all in black except for thin white caps that somewhat resemble baker’s hats, though they are smaller and fit more closely to the head. In Czech the word for sweep is kominík, which is related to the word for chimney, komín.
Their distinctive uniform means they are easy to spot, and Czechs say if you do see a kominík you should grab hold of a button for good luck. That is, you grab hold of one of your own buttons. Watch Czech people running into a sweep, on the street for instance, and they’ll all immediately reach for a button. But actually touching a kominík himself will bring you even more good fortune, according to the superstition.
Around a decade ago I lived near a chimney sweeps office in Vršovice, and would regularly see many of them leaving their HQ for work of a morning. Not being the superstitious type, there was no button clutching for me, but a group of sweeps was always a diverting sight; the trade conjured up a by-gone, Mary Poppins world, and they were, after all, grown men wearing funny little hats.
Perhaps in a few years kominíci won’t be such a common sight. There have been a good few stories in the papers lately about the fact their numbers are dwindling and they are becoming hard to find. Many who didn’t think to engage a sweep well in advance of the recent start to the “heating season” are having to wait weeks, or even months, to have their flues seen to.
Apparently there is only one dedicated training centre left in the country and it has a total of just 11 students, many of them the sons of sweeps preparing to enter the family business.
Those who don’t want to study there for three years can also take a shorter course organised by the Czech chimney sweeps association. A tenth of those who sign up are third-level graduates, an association official told the newspaper Deník.
Then again, there is more to the trade than possessing a white hat and a brush and rod collection: the modern sweep has to be an expert in complicated technical aspects of heating, chimney construction, measuring emissions and fire safety.
Today there aren’t enough kominíci because few young people are
interested in the job. There was also a shortage of sweeps in the past,
for a rather different reason: one with 40 years experience told Mladá
fronta Dnes that under communism the number was kept artificially low, to
aid the extraction of bribes from impatient home-owners.