Lost at Sea children's exhibition

This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Take an imaginary journey across the oceans in Lost at Sea. Sailors and captains played important roles in finding new lands, bringing exciting foods or other discoveries back to their own countries, and making scientific discoveries.

Did You Know?

Sailing the high seas offered excitement, danger, and sometimes, the chance to become very rich.

These men and women are famous for their ocean adventures.

Ferdinand Magellan
Magellan is sometimes thought of being the first person to sail around the world. However, he died during the voyage, and 18 surviving sailors completed the trip. It took 3 years.
Captain John Smith
Smith was a soldier and explorer and came to America in 1607. He became friends with the native princess Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas. John Smith held the rank of captain because of his army service, not because he was the captain of a ship.
Alexander Selkirk
A Scottish sailor, Selkirk was marooned on an island off the coast of Chile in South America. He was rescued four years later and his story became the inspiration for the book Robinson Crusoe.
Grace O'Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille)
O'Malley was an Irish pirate. She attacked ships and castles along the coast, and fought against the English, who wanted to rule Ireland. Grace O'Malley met with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 to negotiate a truce. Some people think the two women spoke in Latin, since Grace O'Malley did not speak English and the queen did not speak Irish.

Learn the Lingo

Learn to talk like a sailor! Many words and phrases we say today actually come from expressions related to ships and the sea. †

  • First rate: A ship that had 100 guns or more and had three decks. Today we say something is "first rate" if it is of high quality.
  • Learning the ropes: Ships had hundreds of ropes and it took sailors awhile to learn how each of them worked. To say that someone is "learning the ropes" means that they might be new to a job.
  • Tidy: The ocean's tides, or times when the level of the waves rises and falls, are predictable. A "tidy" person is someone who is neat and orderly.
  • Skyscraper: The highest sail on a ship—the one closest to the sky—was called a "skyscraper." Today, skyscrapers are very tall buildings in cities.

Other nautical terms still used at sea:

  • Port refers to the left side of the ship.
  • Starboard refers to the ship's right side.
  • The front of a ship is the bow, and the back of the ship it its stern.

† (Source: Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey. Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions. Lanham, MD: Sheridan House, 1993.)

Tools of the Trade

Sailors used many kinds of tools to help them find their way across the ocean.

These tools included:

  • An astrolabe. Sailors could use astrolabes to measure the position of the sun, moon, or stars and find out their latitute, or distance north or south of the equator.
  • A compass. Compasses have a needle that points north. The needle responds to the earth's magnetic field. Compasses helped sailors know which direction they were moving in.
  • An hourglass. An hourglass was filled with sand. As the grains dropped from one side of the glass to the other, sailors could measure time.
  • Sails. Ships moved through the water as the wind pushed against their sails. Sailors did not want to be in a place where there was no wind! Getting stuck on the ocean was called "becalmed."

The food on ships often did not have enough vitamins and nutrients in it. Sailors could get sick. One common disease was scurvy. Doctors figured out that citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and limes could keep sailors from getting scurvy. British sailors were given limes to eat, and were sometimes called limeys.

Make a Compass

Follow these directions to make your own compass to you on your own adventures.

Materials Needed:

  • Pie pan or bowl
  • Water
  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Strong magnet
  • Needle
  • Slice of cork


  1. Fill the pie pan or bowl with water.
  2. Add a few drops of liquid dish soap.
  3. Get an adult to help you magnetize the needle. Carefully scrape it across the north end of the magnet, moving the needle from the eye to the point.
  4. Repeat 15 times, scraping the needle in the same direction each time. Don't rub it back and forth!
  5. Have an adult help you carefully poke the needle through the cork.
  6. Float the cork in the middle of the pan or bowl.
  7. The needle of the compass will point north!

Have fun exploring with your compass!