The Whitneys of Michigan

I just sold this boxed compass by Wilcox Crittendon.

What is a boxed compass or box compass?

It’s a small nautical craft antique compass fastened to the inside of a box via gimbal.

While handheld compasses are usually used for orienteering, boats needed a steady surface for the compass to offer accurate direction during navigation. The gimbal allows the compass to sit steadily though suspended inside the box. Such compasses come in all different sizes and styles. It is the full size binnacle or box compass that is a true nautical instrument.  The Wilcox Crittendon compass I am speaking of, however, had the name “David Whitney, 499 University Place, Grosse Pointe, Michigan” scrawled on the front. How cool!

The most common question that gets asked in our antique store is “What’s the story behind this?” or “To whom did this belong?”.  The truth is, such items are not so often accompanied by a tale. I  mean, think about it; when they refit ships like the USS Constitution, back in the day, no one said “Someone is going to want this one day. Make sure you document it”. It does happen, just not as much as people might think. Seeking the most updated technology for our needs is how we live today and during previous centuries the behavior was the same. And while a story to accompany an object will often increase the value of a piece (if you intend to sell it, that is) a piece should not be viewed as devalued due to a lack of one. This compass, however, came with a story and we are so glad!!!

The Whitneys You Know

Because of the history of the elite yachting culture, I have been immersed in the Whitney lineage for nearly two decades, mainly because the Whitney family lineage crosses the Vanderbilt line and because the Vanderbilt line crosses nearly every other important family line in and around Boston, Rhode Island and New York. You have to know the Vanderbilts if you expect to learn anything about yachting and if you expect to know anything about yachting, you better get used to seeing the name Vanderbilt.

The New York Yacht Club is the most prestigious yacht club in the country. The Club started the America’s Cup event in 1851. It is the birth of modern competitive yachting.

Since Newport, Rhode Island is the satellite station of the New York Yacht Club and since the New York Yacht Club is the history of yachting, voila!; the Vanderbilts “bilt” Newport.  So when I see the compass with the name “Whitney” scrawled on it and because of my experience in genealogy, I can’t imagine that this Whitney is of no relation to the Whitneys of high society.

Those Newport mansions you’ve seen or heard about? Many of them were purchased or built by Vanderbilt’s. The Breakers mansion was the summer home of Gertrude Vanderbilt, who, by marriage, became a Whitney after marrying Harry Payne Whitney of New York in 1896. Although indisputably one of the more privileged socialites in the country at the time, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney walked an unconventional path among the elite. Showing artistic promise as a young child, Gertrude, though not supported in her artistic interests, was also not so discouraged that criticism kept her from seeking further study and practice. At a time when a young girl’s interests lead to their one option as the purpose of the proper marrying woman to the proper marrying man. It must have been strange for her drinking tea and doing needlepoint with the other woman of her status. Imagine the conversations.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Her wealth provided ample means of travel and after visiting France in the early 1900s, Mrs. Whitney was inspired to take up sculpting. She worked under her own name, kept a studio in Greenwich Village and participated in many art exhibitions. After World War I, she donated money and time to establish a hospital for wounded veterans in France. While there, she made drawings of hospitalized soldiers. These drawings became the blueprint for many of her sculptures seen today in New York City. Aside from art, she is also notably marked as the sister of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt who passed in 1925 leaving his fortune to his young wife, Gloria Morgan and their daughter of the same name. Gloria Morgan’s reputation as a mother was anything but responsible and Gertrude Whitney fought to gain custody of her niece. She eventually won and raised Gloria Morgan as her own child; the child we know today as artist and designer Gloria Vanderbilt and the mother of Anderson Cooper.

And I’ve mentioned little about yachting (wipes forehead)! And this is about the Whitneys, anyway.

The Whitneys you might not know (unless you’re Michigander)


Seems that all the US Whitneys descended from John Whitney (1592-1673) and wife Elinor Bray of (likely) Isleworth, England, UK. After coming to the US during the Great Migration, the Whitneys established farm life in Watertown, Massachusetts and as with the times had several children who had several children who had several children, a lot of whom share the same name. Most of the generations remained in the area though some took to the middle part of the state and onto the western part of Massachusetts and eventually New York.
8th generation Whitney, David Charles, jr. (1830-1900), somewhere between 1860 & 1870 was the first to settle in Detroit Michigan where, as the Detroit Free Press put it “he saw opportunity in the virgin timber of the new state”.

He owned an incredibly successful lumberyard, operating mills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Canada. The proximity of Lake Superior allowed Jr. to transport iron ore from Canada to the states and the demand for both lumber and iron offered rich opportunity in the lake transport vessels and invested in steam powered barges. Having a reputation for being an honest and progressive businessman, David Charles Whitney, Jr. was well respected in and out of business by those who knew him and those who had only heard of him. During his lifetime, David Whitney Jr. kept the use of “jr.” even after his father passed. The suffix is always seen next to his name.
He married Flora McLaughlin of Ontario and after the birth of their first child, he built a stone mansion at 4421 Woodward Ave. on the corner of West Canfield St. in Detroit; today referred to as the David Whitney House. At the time the home was built, he was considered the largest lumber dealers in the country and therefore, the wealthiest man in Detroit.

Whitney Mansion | 4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Michigan

The marriage produced 5 children, the only boy being David Charles Whitney III.  Before his passing, Jr. moved within the circles of real estate, buying up properties in Detroit and built upon it the first notable mercantile building. His wealth also spawned an interest in philanthropy and his family retained the charitable tradition after his passing. His epitaph read: “He coveted success but scorned to attain it except through industry and honest means. He acquired wealth without fraud or deceit and the results of his life are full of inspiration to the rising generation”.
David, III also worked in real estate and built the still-standing skyscraper David Whitney Building on Park Avenue in Detroit in 1914 in honor of his late father on the land where the first David Whitney building stood, built 24 years prior. He was an avid yachtsman and sailor belonging to several elite yacht clubs (what yacht clubs are not elite?). In 1905 he had the steam yacht

Whitney Yacht “Sumar”

Ridgemount and in 1912 he had a motor cruiser called the Voyager and sailed the Old Club of Detroit burgee. In 1926, naval architect Henry J. Gielow designed the “Sumar” for Whitney, a 160 foot steam powered yacht that all the big wigs had built during the day.

There is always a connection to find when researching families and artifacts. I wonder if the Whitneys of Michigan knew about their connection to the Whitneys of high society New York? Probably not, that’s why they need me!