If you’ve ever visited New England, or more specifically Vermont, you may have seen a unique piece of local architecture called a witch window. The witch window, sometimes called a slew of different names like coffin window, lazy window, or Vermont window is something you’ll only find in this part of the country.
There are a lot of contenders for why this piece of historical architecture exists and why the multitude of names. I’ll list the top reasons below and just like my post “Why Does My Old House Have Two Front Doors?” I’ll let you decide what the right answer is.
What is a Witch Window?
The witch window is a window usually installed at a 45 degree angle in the gable wall on the second story of a farmhouse. Typically a double-hung window, this unique installation fits in a tough area for window that allows light and fresh air into the second story where there usually would not be any.
This angled installation usually follows the roofline above a first story addition. It creates some challenging flashing issues as well as makes the siding installation difficult to cut as well due to multiple angles it creates.
1. Witch Windows Prevent Witches
Folklore has it (always a trustworthy source, right?) that witches on a broomstick can’t fly in through crooked windows so the witch window provides excellent protection against incoming witches. Except this might be flawed thinking since if I were a witch I would probably just fly in through any of the other windows. Why do just one or two windows per house need this protection?
2. New England Frugality
Seeing that the witch windows were typically installed in the gable end above a first story addition it seems logical to believe that when the addition was constructed there were old windows that were removed from the exterior walls that came down to allow for the new space below.
Those windows could have been reused by frugal New England builders by installing them in the gable end to provide light to what would otherwise be a room with fewer windows thanks to the new addition. Seems plausible, perhaps.
3. The Coffin Window
This idea comes from the thought that rather than try to bring a coffin down the tight and winding staircase of a historic home. Think Ross in Friends “Pivot!” the owners thought ahead and decided to build an angled window into the staircase on the off chance that when someone dies upstairs they would rather be able to first put them in their coffin then drag them out the coffin window onto the roof and down to the ground rather than navigating the staircase.
That’s some incredible foresight and planning to solve a problem that is not really a problem. After all who actually brings the coffin upstairs to the deceased rather than ringing the deceased downstairs to the coffin? Then again I have never died in New England so I can’t say for sure what local customs are.
4. The Sign of the Lazy Builder
Apparently New England builders could be either frugal or lazy. This idea is that rather than build a dormer that requires roof framing and lots of roof flashing considerations the builder would choose to install an extra window into the gable end and have himself the trouble and expense of framing out a dormer.
This idea may also play to the frugal theme as well since skipping the dormer would inevitably save the owner money in the long run. I’m still suspicious of this idea because I’ve seen some great craftsmanship in New England and that includes historic Vermont farmhouses.
What do you think? Why were these witch windows installed in Vermont and New England mainly and not in the rest of the country where we find nary a witch or a crooked window like this? Is there a benefit to having a double hung window perched up in the gable?
Could it be to allow hot air to escape? Even that seems logical but unlikely since Vermont is not exactly the hot climate that much of the American south has where we don’t see any witch windows. Let me know your thoughts below and if you find a good answer to why the witch window exists and what we should call it?
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6 thoughts on “What is a Witch Window?”
Having lived almost a decade in Vermont, in a circa 1770 house–that wasn’t even the oldest house on our street, and that had been owned by handyman after handyman throughout its entire lifespan to date, just like all my neighbors–I can all but guarantee that the answer is #2: Frugality!
My mother’s from Minnesota, and taught me their unofficial state motto: “Use it up, wear it out; make do, do without.” Vermonters don’t need to be taught this: they absorb it in the womb.
There is an option #5, by the way, and I know of at least some people who’ve used it: instead of using a ladder to get up on the roof to clear off those stubborn ice dams, you just pop out the witch window. (Which reminds me: when I lived in Maine, I saw a lot of 19th century houses with ladders built into their roofs. Might be an interesting topic to research!)
Incidentally, I don’t remember seeing these witch windows in any houses older than say, late 19th century at most. Before then, it wasn’t the frugal option….
Frugality, laziness & snow/ice buildup are what I think. Also I think a wee bit of thermal efficiency may come into play. Cool idea, too.
I lived in Massachusetts until I was 66 years old. I never saw a window like this, that I remember. But growing up in a 1900-built house with a DYI father, I can imagine the reason for a window like this was twofold. As you suggested, it would provide fresh air for the room without having to build a dormer….especially if the carpenter was a self-taught handiman, and to use a perfectly good window that had to be removed in order to attach the addition. I love it. Talk about character!!!
But how about a “coffin corner”? A little niche in the corner of a tight stairway to allow you to swing a coffin around. Probably not true for coffins (I tried to buy a house in DC that had been an undertaker’s and there was a mortuary workshop in the basement, including a lightweight wicker coffin used for picking up the deceased), but useful for getting big beds in and out. I had to take a hacksaw to the mattress that had been left behind in the house I did buy, a duplex turned into a four-plex turned into a seven-plex and then declared unlivable.
Same thought here! I vote witch window – Vermont is in the very superstitious zone and likely the kids slept up there!
I like the witch idea, but being from New England I vote for frugality. It just seems like something a New Englander would do.