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  • Carole Conn

The Settlers' Radiator: Soapstone

Early in our colonial history large deposits of soapstone were discovered in New England, principally in Vermont. This prized commodity enabled the colonists to craft household items to keep them warm during the brutal New England winters.

Soapstone is also soft and easily carved and shaped. Decorative and practical household items were made from small pieces of soapstone which are so very interesting and fascinating to collect today.

Soapstone is like no other rock. It is composed primarily of talc. This makes it quite soft, perfect for carving, but it is also very dense. It is nonporous, nonabsorbent, resistant to acids and alkalis, and has incredible capacity to retain heat.

So, why am I telling you all this? American soapstone antiques are still available in the marketplace, and they are very collectible.

Ever wonder why soapstone was used to make sinks? If you pour boiling water into it the water stays hot for hours because of soapstone's amazing capacity to retain heat.

Soapstone countertops are not a modern idea - they were in many a colonial kitchen. Hot pots taken off the hearth were placed on the countertop - not a built into the cabinet countertop - but a slab of soapstone sitting on a cupboard or table -to keep them warm for a long time. Soapstone is completely resistant to heat damage, so there are no pot rings or burns.

I think I've just talked myself into new kitchen countertops!

I love the soft weathered gray of soapstone. It becomes almost black if you oil it, but if you just let it weather it gets a very mellow look. I found this old sink (above) in a shop about 20 years ago - it weighs a ton. I bought it feeling that I would someday have a use for it. When we added on to our home about 10 years ago I found the perfect spot for it - in my "potting room" where I play with my plants. It has a built in soap dish, which I love. We just had the drainage hole retrofitted to the plumbing and it became a much used and loved sink.

Soapstone was often built into fireplaces or into the hearth to enhance heat retention of the fire. Later, soapstone was used in Franklin stoves for the same reason.

Small slabs of soapstone were carved so that they could be used to warm beds, the floor of a horse drawn carriage, or to warm and dry out your wet boots.

You can find these rectangular pieces of soapstone with wire handles at flea markets and at shows for very little money. Finding unusual sizes or shapes is more challenging. I found these three mini soapstone warmers at a show several years ago.

The smallest one is only 2 1/2" tall. Not sure what it was used for, except to warm up something teeny.

Soapstone varies in softness, depending on the talc makeup of a particular slab. The softer ones are easily carved and shaped, and are less suitable for structures like hearths and countertops.

I fell in love with soapstone inkwells a number of years ago and have collected several. They are each a product of the carver's imagination. My favorite is one that I acquired recently- it is triangular, with the date 1774 carved on one side, the owner's initials carved on another side, and a star on the third side.

Sometimes you can find soap dishes made of soapstone. A dealer friend had this one in her home and agreed to sell it to me if I gave it a good home, which I have.

Boots and shoes got wet and muddy in the New England weather, so what better to dry out your boots than a good slab of soapstone? Most are long and narrow with a hole for a leather hanging strap, and some are shaped like feet.

They were kept near the fire during the colder months and put into the boots and shoes at night so that you'd wake up to dry and warm shoes.

Why is it called soapstone? The talc in soapstone causes the surface to feel "soapy" when you touch it - smooth and soft. The only real disadvantage of soapstone is that it will chip or crack of you drop it or slam a cast iron pot on a slab. So don't do that.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone has found unusual pieces of soapstone in their travels. I almost bought a tiny bullet mold recently. Very interesting little piece. When you see soapstone warmers, sinks, heating pads and stoves, think how lucky we are to have central heating!


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