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Witch Windows of Vermont

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Photo credit: Larry Lamsa/Flickr

An architectural oddity found only in the US state of Vermont is the so-called “witch window”. These are normal portrait-style windows, but angled diagonally so that its long edge is parallel to the roof slope. They are installed in the upper stories in the gable-end wall of the house, and are usually found in old farmhouses.

According to the locals the windows were installed to prevent witches from flying into the house, because apparently witches can’t fly through an angled window, which might physically be true, but one might wonder why all the windows of the house aren’t angled. Surely, a witch would need only one vertical window to enter the house, and there are plenty of vertical windows to use. There is no reason why a witch would confine herself to only that particular window.

Nobody knows how the superstition arose, but there is a popular joke in Vermont:

A tourist driving through Vermont asks a local, “Hey, why does that window look so funny in that house?” The local looks around and then asks, “Which window?” to which the tourist replies, “Ok, great, thanks,” and drives off.

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Photo credit: Piledhigheranddeeper/Wikimedia

There is another theory to the crooked window. Many dying people spend their last days in their bedrooms, which are typically in the upper stories of their homes. When they pass away, it becomes difficult to maneuver the coffin from the second floor down to the first floor through the narrow hallways and staircases. Eventually, someone built “coffin windows” so they could slide out the coffin easily. However, there is one flaw in this theory: you don’t take the coffin upstairs to put the body in, you bring the body downstairs and then put it in the coffin. Besides, the windows don’t even open all the way and could never have fit a coffin.

The real explanation for these unusual windows is frugality. Attics and second floor bedrooms, where witch windows are installed, need light but there is not enough space to fit a good-sized window in the wall between the roof of the wing and that of the main part of the house. One alternative is to make dormer windows which project out of roof, but those are expensive to make. So the solution is to rotate a vertical window to fit within the gable. This allows decent ventilation and are extremely easy and cheap to build.

So why did this architectural anomaly not spread to other states?

"It’s not specific to Vermont," says Devin Colman, who works for Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation. "I think it’s more prevalent, but you do find them in rural areas in New Hampshire and Maine and other parts of New England."

In other places, these windows are simply referred to as crooked, or angled windows, but they are not so common. Even within Vermont, witch windows are found only in central and northern regions, and in 19th century farmhouses.

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Photo credit: Amy Kolb Noyes/VPR

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