The History of Bartering

By James Harvey Stout (deceased). This material is now in the public domain. The complete collection of Mr. Stout's writing is now at >


The history of bartering probably began in a cave, where a guy traded a mastodon tusk for a cavewoman's spear. Or maybe he traded a handful of blueberries for her sandals.

That first deal has been forgotten. And billions of other deals have been forgotten over the years. But some are worth remembering. In this chapter, we will look back at some of the deals which have occurred throughout history.

Do you know the story of Helen of Troy? When the Trojans kidnapped Helen, Agamemnon wanted to send his Spartan ships to rescue her. But there wasn't enough wind to fill the ships' sails. So Agamemnon made a deal with the gods. He sacrificed his daughter to them, in exchange for a strong wind blowing out over the ocean.

The ancient Phoenicians were some of the best businesspeople in the world. They took their goods to other cities far across the ocean. But they didn't sell those goods; they bartered them.

Babylonia had a good barter system, using barley and uncoined silver.

In those long-ago times, many things were used as money: tea, weapons, even human skulls.

Salt was another type of "money." In fact, salt was often used to pay the salary of Roman soldiers. (That Latin word -- sal -- gives us the words "salt" and "salary.")

During the Middle Ages, the Europeans bartered their goods throughout the world. They would take their furs and crafts to the East, and then swap them for spices, silks -- and perfumes which smelled wonderful enough to be worn by queens.

In colonial America. There wasn't much money, so the people did most of their business by bartering. They used wheat, musket balls, wampum -- or bucks. These "bucks" were not the dollar bills which we use today; these were the skins of real bucks (male deer).

Sometimes the bartering was just a neighborly thing to do. We might help 20 other people in John Anderson's barn-raising. Then those people would all help us in a "work party," to dig a well on our land. The work was traded among neighbors in this way, and no one kept track of the trades. Sharing was a way of life.

In the early years of Oxford and Harvard, those schools allowed students to pay for tuition with goods like lumber, food, and livestock.

Look at this deal. If you had been as rich as General Vallego in the 1840's, you could have traded away some of your California land for piano lessons. He traded 4,000 acres for those lessons!

During the Great Depression in the 1930's, money was scarce, so bartering was a popular way to get things. People traded on their own, and through groups like the National Development Association (NDA). In one of its projects, the NDA found property owners who would let its members move in without paying rent. Instead of paying rent, the members would fix up the homes or apartments -- maybe painting the walls, and repairing the leaky roof.

During the 1930s, Adolph Hitler was planning to conquer the world. But every conqueror needs money to start a war. So Hitler started to barter with nations like Sweden, Russia, and Greece. Eventually Hitler started to cheat his "barter partners." For example, Greece ordered some machinery, but he sent a shipment of harmonicas instead.

After World War II, the money in Germany was worth almost nothing. So those people had to barter to get food and clothing. No one wanted the money; if you had had a bucket full of German currency, you couldn't even have bought a loaf of bread. But you could have gotten the bread by trading stockings, or potatoes, or something else.

Bartering shouldn't be left in the past. It becomes better every day, because people like us are learning to be traders. We can take "bartering" into the future.