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Wharves of the World

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Social Studies
State Standards:
Massachusetts Grade 3 Concepts and Skills
History and Geography 2, 3
Economics 9
Learning Standards 3.9, 3.13
Grade 5 Concepts and Skills
Economics 12, 13, 14
Learning Standards 5.11, 5.33


In “Wharves of the World,” students imagine the vibrant, bustling atmosphere in Salem at the turn of the 19th century when Salem and its people were tied to global trade. 

Students use close observation to examine an illustration that depicts the wharves, warehouses, vessels, shipyards and the exchange of goods and ideas that that characterized the area. The lesson, aimed at grades 3-5, will take 30-60 minutes to complete. 

Suggested objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Describe how the wharves and the surrounding area once looked.
  • List the types of work and activities that took place on the wharves.
  • Explain the importance of maritime commerce in the development of the nation.

Derby Wharf

Of all the dozens of wharves lining the harbor during Salem's Golden Age of Sail, Derby Wharf was the center of activity. As such, it was crowded with ships arriving from or leaving for exotic ports; the many warehouses and stores held desirable treasures; merchants, shoppers, sailors, curious children and foreigners walked amid the bustle.

There was noise from conversations, construction, and animals, as well as smells from the coffee, pepper and tea being unloaded on the dock. It could be a place of happiness when a ship returned from a long voyage with a profitable cargo, or one of sadness when informed of the death of a loved one at sea.


Step 1: Make copies of the wharf illustration and distribute to students or project the image onto a screen so that students can observe its details. The illustration could also be divided and cut into quadrants and given to small groups of students.

Step 2: Ask students to examine the illustration or their particular section and list what is in the illustration.

  • People: Are there people? Who are they? What are they doing?
  • Objects: Are there buildings, boats, animals, wagons or other things?
  • Setting: Describe the place. Does it take place in the past, present or future?
  • Activity: What is happening in the illustration? What types of work is being done? What other activities do you see going on?
  • What else do you see in this illustration?

Step 3: Questions for discussion

  • What would you hear and smell if you were standing on this wharf?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe this scene?
  • How many different types of vessels do you see?
  • Look inside the ship in the front of the illustration. What types of goods do you imagine is in the ship? Where do you think the ship has gone or is going?
  • How many buildings are there in the illustration? What are they being used for?
  • In what ways do the wharves connect Salem to the world?


A painting of a busy wharf in Salem, Massachusetts, by Fred Freedman

Download Illustration of Derby Wharf

Last updated: June 9, 2015