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Climbing Boys

Sweeps were bound as apprentices as young as four years. Parents would take children to master sweepers and bind them over to the highest bidder "as they cannot put them to apprenticeship to any other master at so early an age." Shimmying himself up chimneys as narrow as 9 inches square and as high as 60 feet, a sweep would have to show his head or brandish his brush above the chimney pot to prove he'd done his job. He dislodged the soot as he climbed, emptying it into a bag. By the time he reached his teens, the sweep "might find himself not only a bandy-legged hunchback, but also a eunuch," the victim of a scrotal disease known as "chimneys sweeper's cancer." Years of pressing knees  against chimney walls deformed his legs and played havoc with his knee caps, while the ubiquitous soot brought inflammation of the eyes and skin disease." - Reproduced with permission of McGraw-Hill Inc., from The Illustrated Treasury of Medical Curiosa, by Art Newman, Copyright 1988.


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