The Vermont Character: Coffin Windows
One of my favorite pieces of Obscure Vermont is a mixture of architectural vernacular, and good old fashioned Yankee Ingenuity.
Do you see the diagonally tilted window placed in the gable end of this old farmhouse with its long edge parallel to the roof? A lot of people, Vermonters or flatlanders, seem to be flummoxed about these peculiarly slanted windows. That’s because their orientational existence isn’t found in any other states (though someone did tell me that they think they saw one somewhere in New Hampshire not too long ago.) To add a bit more rapturous froth to the isolated mystery, our Vermont parlance labels them “coffin windows”, or sometimes “witch windows”, depending on who you are I guess. Growing up, my mother would always point them out as “coffin windows” whenever we would take a trip out of suburban Chittenden County to more rural parts of the state, where older structures far outnumbered the new. I wasn’t introduced to “witch windows” until much later.
The etymology behind the monikers vary, and can’t really be traced back to a materialized point of origin.
Going alphabetically – it’s said these are called coffin windows because if a family member died upstairs, it was far easier to maneuver the needed coffin out the window and slide it down the roof as opposed to figuring out just how to haul it down a steep and narrow Vermont farmhouse staircase. And trust me, some of them are very steep and narrow to a point of over-cautiousness when walking up or down one – enough for me to sympathize with anyone who would groan at the prospect of dragging anything up or down them.
The name witch window gets a bit more on the superstitious side. It’s said that an old belief was that a witch couldn’t enter your dwelling through a crooked window or opening. A similar superstition that comes to mind is how the ancient Chinese thought bad spirits traveled in straight lines, so their architecture took on steeply peaked rooflines.
I know old Vermonters were a superstitious bunch. Our collective state history and folklore include such grim things as incriminating real people accused of Vampirism, or desecrating the graves of dead people accused of postmortem vampirism (our most famous Vampire execution was a man named Corwin, whose remains still loam underneath Woodstock’s boat shaped town green).
But witches? There isn’t much known on how scared Vermonters were of witches, leaving this as intriguing speculation. However, I was able to dig up a small number of succinct accounts in old state newspapers around the late 1700s and early 1800s of various Vermonters who locals suspected were witches, but in reality were probably nothing more than eccentrics living in a more narrow-minded time. One article amusingly reported that a Stowe woman was blamed for making several farmers’ milk cows run dry.
A more practical theory and probably the most likely of the three, was that these windows were a creative solution to let light into the cramped spaces upstairs. Gables didn’t often leave rooms for traditional sized windows and poor farmers didn’t want to spend the money on drafty dormers or getting a custom window made – which was a costly purchase many families couldn’t afford. They also enabled fresh air and ventilation to keep the house inhabitable. Though there are far more scolding environments than Vermont, our summers do get pretty humid, and the upper floors of an old house easily turn into ovens.
Further down the line, these windows adopted yet another sobriquet with less dour and more civic pride; Vermont Windows. Though I haven’t heard that term nearly as much as the aforereferenced other two.
In a world that loves things to fall into human-made symmetry, who knew that a window installed at a tilt could conjure up so many declaratory ideologies.
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