As was the case with so many bygone figures of the London Streets (blogs here and here), I first encountered a crossing sweeper in Dickens (Bleak House). A quick scan of Google Books offered a number of opinions about the profession, some favorable, but the majority not. Mr. Grant, who seemed careful of his facts in discussing begging letter writers, gets so wacky on this subject that I began to doubt his "facts" elsewhere.
But here’s Dickens in non-fiction mode, in one of his magazines:
A CORRESPONDENT of the Standard has taken up his parable against the crossing-sweepers, whom he pronounces to be a nuisance, and whom he proposes to replace by the adoption by the Vestries of some "uniform plan of sweeping the crossings where really needed."
"WHERE really needed" means, in wet weather, everywhere, and all day long, for a crossing, once swept, cannot be expected to remain clean for any length of time. What sort of a staff of sweepers would the London Vestries have to employ, I wonder, with any sort of hope of carrying out this Augean labour effectually? Crossing-sweepers are undoubtedly a nuisance, sometimes, but I am afraid they are among the minor troubles which we must be content to set against the many advantages of living in a city, and we must make up our minds that there must always be some detail or another with which it is impossible for our rulers and governors to deal.
THE Standard's correspondent goes back to an old superstition in one of his arguments against crossing-sweepers, whom he accuses of earning considerably more than hard-working artizans. Thackeray once wrote a story the hero of which was a crossing sweeper who lived like a gentleman on the profits of his crossing opposite the Bank, and on the strength of this legend it has been very generally though vaguely assumed that the profession is a very remunerative one. So far as facts have ever come out I do not think that this idea has ever been justified, although, no doubt, there have been exceptional cases of sweepers doing very well. And, even if they do, there is not much to grumble at. The life cannot be one of many charms.
—Excerpt from Household words: a weekly journal, Volume 4, Charles Dickens.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.