Vintage Vermont Lore IV: “Witch Windows”

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Vintage Vermont Lore IV: “Witch Windows”

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You must have seen them, those weird tilted windows on the side of houses, below the eaves and between two sections of housing. They hang at a 45 degree angle, an oddity among the usual aesthetics of a typical farmhouse, and can be seen across Vermont, with New Hampshire and Maine showcasing a few as well. These windows go by many names; the aptly coined “Vermont window”, “witch window”, and “coffin window”, and allegedly only exist in the three New England states. So what exactly is the deal with these windows? As the many monikers imply, the decades have welcomed quite a few explanations for both their odd placement and their shape.

These windows first began to appear in the 1830s, and one would be hard pressed in the state of Vermont to find a house from this era without them. The first and perhaps most interesting explanation behind their purpose and origin involves, as the name “witch window”  implies, witches. Now Vermont may not exactly be Salem, but our very own Bennington County held a witch trial in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, allegedly Vermont’s only one, that saw the accusation poised against a Pownal woman (more on this in Vintage Vermont Lore V!). So witches were definitely a thing early Vermonters worried about. How they relate to the windows goes back to a Vermont superstition that witches entered houses by flying through windows on their brooms. The purpose of the witch window was to prevent the witches from flying into people’s homes. The reasoning behind this is unclear. Some believe that it has to do with the angle, and as it would seem, the witches are incapable of flying and tilting their brooms to fly through them. Other theories point to the shape of the window and how it is reminiscent of a cross, making the witches unwilling to fly through the holy symbol.This theory does not exist on its own. Throughout history architecture often is erected around superstitions; whether this means misaligning doors to keep out ghosts, or ignoring the 13th floor, the fact is that superstition has played a pretty big role in human infrastructure.

The other popular theory, though no less odd, is a bit more practical. As mentioned the windows are also known as “coffin windows”, leaving one to, rather appropriately assume, that these windows were meant for coffins. As the story goes, hallways, stairwells, and doors in old Vermont farmhouses were narrow and bedrooms were often on the second floor, so when someone passed away in their bed moving the body was extremely difficult. The solution to this problem was the “coffin” window, which allowed for the undertaker to enter the room with the coffin from the roof of the addition. There are several things wrong with this theory, the first of which is that in order to enter and exit the room through the window you still had to climb a roof, an impressive fete for any person, and a near miracle if one factors in the coffin. The second is the size of the window; in many cases they are more narrow than the average house window, so to fit a coffin, or even a person through the window, seems not only unlikely, but something that would make the struggle down the hall and stairs appear to be the easier option. This has led most if not all Vermont historians to dismiss this fanciful yet macabre tale as little more than that, a story.

As boring as it may sound, the true purpose of these windows comes down to two things: frugality and practicality. If you look at the houses which have these windows, you will often notice that they sit between an addition and what is most probably the main/original house. These houses were built before the advent of electricity, and candles cost money, but when the new addition was built, one side of the house was deprived of its natural light. So what did vintage Vermonters do? The simply stuck a window in wherever they could, even if it meant building it at an awkward angle. The ingenious solution caught on, and soon houses all over the state were adopting this quick fix to natural light deprivation that came with a growing house for a growing family.

This origin story may not be as interesting as tales of witches and coffins, but the simplest answer is often the right one, and this easy fix to a real problem in the nineteenth century not only adds to Vermont’s unique charm, but quite obviously stimulates the imagination, making a nice place for itself among the state’s quirky legends and lore.