There are a lot of strange customs and superstitions that have been a perennial staple of our culture since the first settlers landed in New England. Although many have faded with time into obscurity, some not only still thrive but can also be seen as one travels around 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.
The weird history of witch windows
A majority of witch windows can be found in Vermont, but they can be found in other areas of New England as well. Witch windows are so common in Vermont that they are also known as Vermont windows. Witch windows date back to the 19th Century, when most of Vermont was comprised of rural, isolated farming communities. To this day, Vermont is known for its small towns and slow pace. Its biggest city, Burlington, is home to only 43,000 residents; tiny Montpelier, with a population below 8,000 is the only U.S. capital that does not have a McDonald's. For the folks who farmed this land, it was second nature to renew, reuse, recycle any- and everything (well before that phrase even came into being). That includes windows, with their valuable glass and hardware. As a result, these oddly angled openings remain as a structural reminder of Yankee ingenuity.
Folklore has it that the angled windows prevent witches from entering the home.
New England has never been an especially welcoming place for witches. Their association dates to the colonial era, way back when the Pilgrims and Puritans first stepped foot on our continent, and—well, suffice it to say that witches and churches did not enjoy the most harmonious affiliation in history.
So why is there a window named after them?
It turns out that witch windows aren’t intended to benefit the broomstick-equipped crones of fairy tale lore but are actually meant to thwart them. Witches don’t have the capacity to tilt their brooms 45 degrees, so the tilted design keeps them from flying into the home. (Apparently, witches don’t even have enough brain capacity to recognize the many perfectly vertical windows through which they could enter, either.)
Some refer to it as a coffin window.
Another term for this quirky feature is “coffin window.” Say someone dies on the second floor of the home; it would be much easier, proponents of this nomenclature propose, to slide a coffin out of a slanted sash than to take it down narrow staircases and out the front door. This might make sense at first glance, but when you think it through, the coffin-transport theory falls apart. Where is the coffin supposed to go once it’s been defenestrated? You can’t just send it sliding down the pitch of the porch roof and expect it to land intact. For that matter, why lug a coffin to the second floor in the first place, when you could just carry the body downstairs? We call nonsense on this macabre explanation.
The real reason behind witch windows is a bit more practical.
Farmers, and perhaps especially New Englanders who farm, are a practical lot. So, the real reason for witch windows is probably a prosaic one. Their standard size and shape would have been a lot easier to come by when expanding an existing home, than a custom-built window would’ve been, and to fit them in between narrowly placed adjacent rooflines, they had to be tilted. They could have been pressed into service after being salvaged from another structure. Remember, we’re talking about construction that took place around 200 years ago, when rural people were extremely averse to waste of any kind. Bolstering that origin story is the fact that daylight was a fairly scarce resource in Northern states and many of these homes were constructed well before the advent of electricity. The more windows a farmhouse had to let in the precious light, the better. Witch windows provided as much illumination as possible in that particular spot.
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.