New England has a lot of exclusive and strange customs and superstitions that have been a perennial staple of our culture since the first settlers landed here. Although many have faded with time into obscurity, some not only still thrive but can also be seen as one travels the highways and byways of the region. One of these customs can be seen mainly in Vermont and is known as the “Witch Window.” The origins of this name are lost to obscurity, but the strange slanted window easily distinguishes their existence between the eave of the home and addition just below, running parallel with the roof angle.
Witch windows originated in the Green Mountain State sometime around the 19th century. The name actually refers to a superstition that witches cannot maneuver their broomsticks sideways, so by placing the window at a 45-degree angle, a witch cannot enter your home through that window. This seems relatively weak in theory as all the other windows in the home are installed at the usual angles. If a witch really wanted to enter the home, it could easily pick another opening more suitable for entry.
Another term for these examples of peculiar architecture is “coffin windows,” which is even more unusual than the former. This name came from the thought that rather than lugging a heavy-laden coffin down the winding staircase of the home, the angled window would allow the coffin to be slid right side up out the window onto the roof of the addition and carefully lowered to the ground. This seems rather irrational in thought and practicality, especially for Vermonters who are known for their common sense and ingenuity. If someone were to die upstairs, would it not be easier to bring the deceased downstairs to the coffin rather than carry the coffin upstairs to the dead?
Many years ago, I saw my first witch window while traveling along Route 25 in Vermont. It struck me as odd at first, but its purpose immediately seemed as plain and evident as could be. The first story addition may have covered the old window. Thus, being practical and not having access to the big box stores we have today, the owner reinstalled the window to easily fit in the angled space between the addition and eave, instead of building a dormer for an upright window. Why do you ask? Easy answer; to let light into the upstairs room that would otherwise be dark after the addition was put in place.
The expansion of the home led to having the second-floor window covered by the new roof. Vermont farmers would not have wasted anything if they could help it. Materials were hard to come by, and that window was going to be used. The only place it would fit was where you see them today.
So, we have superstition, custom, and practicality. Is it all three, or just one reason these amusing additions exist, mainly on Vermont homes? If you happen upon a house with a witch window and the owner is outside, stop and ask him about the witch window. Don’t be surprised if he looks at you with a severe yet sincere expression on his face as he asks, “witch window?” Seeing one while driving the roads of Vermont is almost as exciting as seeing a moose or bear, but a heck of a lot safer.