A famous old look on Charleston roof tops comes from the numerous chimneys “capped” with brick arches open on the sides. The look is distinctive, but the idea is very functional, keeping smoke from backdrafting down the chimneys in the pre-electricity days when ciy houses were heated by coal and wood-burn ing fireplaces.
The brick chimney cap was also sensible preventative against flaming embers that could easily ignite the layers of coal tar or creosote that would build up on the inner walls of the structure from hearths below.
Concern over the combustible capability of chimneys was considerable, and city ordinances in the 18th century created “chimney inspectors”,who had the power to enter private property for the purpose of determining whether chimneys were safe. These inspectors could compel property owners to have their chimneys swept, which was done until well into the 20th century by small boys known as “sweep boys”.
Sweep boys would crawl into fireplaces and squeeze their way up through the narrow chimney passages, scouring with bristled brushes to the roof. An ordinance in 1842 set maximum sweep rates at 6 3/4 cents per floor after a threatened strike by chimney sweeps actually prevailed over Charleston.