Trades Hike: Barter in Early America

Inroduction by Nina Maurer, OBHS

In early America, when the District of Maine was still part of Massachusetts, people had little cash to spend.  The only money was in gold, silver, and copper coins, mainly from England and Spain.  The shortage of coins was a hardship for people living in the American colonies, since it limited their ability to buy what they needed.  Silver coins were made in Massachusetts to solve this problem, but the supply was too small.  Paper money was printed by local banks, but people could not always trust its worth.

As a result of this lack of cash, most business was done by barter. Barter is trading goods (like potatoes) for other goods (like a tin lantern) without the use of money.  Services (like driving a wagon or chopping wood) can also be traded. Here is an example of bartering done by a farmer in South Berwick more than 200 years ago, long before Maine became a state.

Benjamin Gerrish owned a farm beside the Great Works River.  He grew corn, potatoes, barley, flax for making cloth, and hay for feeding his animals, which were cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  He also had a vegetable garden and an apple orchard.  One spring day, about this time of year, he decided to rebuild his old farmhouse, but he needed lumber for the new kitchen.  He traded a bushel of potatoes that he had stored in his cellar to carpenter Alexander Gerrish, who cut timbers and framed the kitchen walls.  For building a new brick chimney, he paid mason Noah Goodwin 500 pounds of hay.  The tanner, Richard Shackley, who made leather from animal hides, traded the finished leather needed to make a pair of shoes for a calf skin from Gerrish’s farm.  Neighbor Ichabod Lord cut slender branches, called withes, for constructing fences, and in return Gerrish loaned him a team of oxen to haul logs from the forest.  The blacksmith, Thomas Chadbourne, made iron parts--shoes for Gerrish’s oxen, runners for his wagon sleigh, and iron fittings for the new chimney—but we don’t know if he worked for barter or cash!

Barter is a useful way to exchange goods when cash is scarce.  But trading by barter has one big disadvantage.  You and your partner must have matching needs.   If you have potatoes and want an iron pot, but the person with an iron pot wants only corn, you cannot trade.  Barter is costly because people spend a lot of time searching for matching needs.  Money solves that problem by offering people something valued in any exchange.


Trades Hike Through History:  Pre-Museum Visit Vocabulary and Concepts


• Students will understand the interdependence of people in South Berwick in the past.

• Students will understand how the bartering system worked in the 1800s.

• Students will understand how townspeople met their needs through goods and services that were available in the town.



interdependence  - people depending on each other and working together to have their wants and      needs met. 

barter -  to trade goods or services of equal value without the exchange of cash money

trade -   a job, especially one requiring skilled labor  (carpenter, tailor, mason, etc.)

goods – products of value that are made or grown (mittens, potatoes, cup, etc.)

services – labor or work 


Discussion questions:

1. Today, how are we interdependent?  (food, shelter, clothing)

2. How are YOU dependent on others for your needs?

3. Could we survive today if we didn’t rely on each other to have our needs met?

4. How do you think South Berwick’s citizens that lived 200 years ago depended on one another? (food, clothing, shelter, transportation, schooling, government, defense, etc.)

5. How do we get what we need today? (Discuss how people use their wages to buy what they need.)

6. Could bartering work in our society?  Why or why not?

7. If you were bartering with a friend for something that you truly needed, what goods or services could you use in the exchange?


Possible Activities:

• Read The Oxcart Man  (The farmer doesn’t barter, but he shows how a family uses their goods to sell in order to get other things that they need.)

• Read Cocoa Ice  (This story shows the interdependence  of the ice and cocoa traded through the eyes of a little girl in Maine and one in Santa Domingo.)

• Practice bartering with classroom items that have been assigned simple values.


Trades Hike Museum Program: Trades Search and Find 


1. Welcome and setting the purpose for the visit (5 minutes)


• Have the students sit on the benches.   

• Say:  “Welcome to the Counting House Museum.  I’m [give your name].  We’ve come here to discover amazing stories from our town’s rich history and to prepare for your Hike through History tour of our town later this month. 

• We’re surrounded by exhibits that tell the story of people who lived in our town over the past 400 years.  We’ll explore these cases to learn about skilled trades of the past and the ways people relied on each other for the goods and services they needed.

• We have three goals for your visit.  We want you to: 

a. Understand how the objects in these cases, even though most of them would no longer be useful to us in our lives today, tell us stories of skilled trades—how people worked to make a living in South Berwick long ago.  These objects show us how jobs can be similar to and different from jobs today.

b. Learn about interdependence of people in New England villages so you can share this knowledge when you teach the first and second graders about village trades.

c. Understand how bartering was used long ago by townspeople and others living on farms (many with families just like yours!) to get things that they needed and wanted.


2. What is interdependence?  

 In your classroom you learned about this word.  What does it mean?

 (People relying upon each other and working together to survive).  


How many of your families: 

• Grow your own food? 

• Grow enough food to feed your family for a week?

• Grow enough food for the whole year?


How many of your families:

• Make your own yarn from sheep’s wool and then knit it into mittens or sweaters?

• Saw lumber or make bricks to build your own home?


Each of us relies on many people to supply our needs.  We are all interdependent.


3.What is bartering?

(A way of trading things of equal value without using cash money. Things of value can be goods—things made or grown—or services—kinds of work).

a. Please raise your hand if you have ever been able to get something that you wanted or needed by bartering.  Isn’t that interesting that bartering is still happening today?!  I will hear two examples and then we’ll move on.

b. Now we’re going to spend the rest of your visit learning about how the people who lived here long before us worked together and bartered in order to meet their needs.


4.  Trades Search and Find Activity:  (25 minutes total)

Description of Activity:

Students will learn about skilled trades and economic interdependence of South Berwick’s citizens of the past by participating in a search and find activity using the Village Voices display cases.


Materials needed:

Display cases, numbered 1-6

Mini-clipboards and pencils

Search and Find worksheets


Introduction and Preparation:  (5 minutes)


• Divide students into six groups and hand out the Trades Search and Find worksheets, clipboards and pencils.

• Say:  “We are going to be playing a game of Search and Find with the display cases that you see all around the room. You are all going to be using your powers of historical reasoning and working together to learn about different trades and how people used these skills and goods to barter.  

• Each group will have 5 minutes at each display to answer the questions.  You will be able to visit two displays during this activity.  If you’re interested in seeing the rest of the displays, we’d love to have you and your family visit our museum this summer!

• There will be adults to help you if you need them, but try to answer the questions by using all of the combined brainpower in your group.  When you hear the bell ring, please move to the next case.  It’s okay if you don’t complete all the questions.

• Any questions for me?

• Please choose one person from each group to record your ideas.”  

• Assign each group to a case (numbered 1-6).

• Say: “You may walk to a case now and begin.”


Search and Find Game (15 minutes)


• The lead teacher times the activity for 5 minutes. 

• The lead teacher and other volunteers will circulate and help students as needed.  Check in frequently so students leave with the correct information.  Use your Cue Cards for background information on each display.

• When the time is up, say, “You have 2 minutes to complete your answers.  We will switch cases when the bell rings.”

• At 7 minutes, ring the bell once and say, “Please walk over to the case directly across the room from where you are now.  You will be exploring a second trade in the same way.”

• Repeat the activity.

• After 7 minutes, or when students have completed their work at the second case, tell them to gather back at the benches to discuss the following questions.


Summary Discussion (5 minutes)

a. Say: “What trades did you find that are no longer being practiced here in South Berwick today? (sailor, weaver, shoemaker)

b. Which trades are still done today (even if they might be different in some ways)?  (sawyer, farmer, iceman)

c. What are some of the goods and services that Farmer Gerrish and his family would have bartered with the other tradesmen in town?  (lumber, cordwood, apples, potatoes, oats, butter, linen cloth, use of his ox team, use of his sawmill)

d. How were the people in the village of South Berwick interdependent? (Farmer Gerrish depended on the sailor for sugar and molasses from the West Indies, and the sailor depended on farmer Gerrish for hay, lumber and vegetables to sell on tropical islands.  See Cue Cards for additional examples.) 

e. We hope you can use what you learned today to teach your first and second grade friends back at Central School about trades, bartering, and interdependence.”

Ask: “Are there any questions?  Now we’re going to move on to a new activity in which you’ll learn how people of the past bartered!  Please stay in your seats and we will tell you about the game called Made for Trade.”


Trades Hike Museum Program: Made for Trade Board Game


Theme:  More than a century ago, people living in the village of South Berwick relied on each other in order to survive and thrive.



• Students will understand the interdependence of people in South Berwick in the 1800s.

• Students will understand how the bartering system worked.

• Students will understand how townspeople met their needs through goods and services that were available in the town.


Description of Activity:

Students will learn about trades and interdependence in the 1800s and then barter both goods and services as they meet different tradespeople from South Berwick’s past.  Their goal in the Made for Trade board game is to obtain the items needed by their farm family.


Materials and Supplies:

Timer and bell 6 baskets with trade goods 

Set of 6 family Identity Cards 6 Cue Cards for volunteer tradespeople 

6 large foam dice 22 Chance Cards in a basket

6 Checklists on clipboards, pencils 6 Trade Shop signs and floor stands 

10 Replica coins


Introduction:  (5 minutes)

Students (already divided into six groups) will sit on benches.



Today you will be learning about the South Berwick’s past when people bartered to get the goods and services they needed and wanted.  You will be playing the roles of six real South Berwick farm families who lived in the 1800s.  Each family will be going into the village to exchange their goods with local tradespeople and with each other.  You are trying to get enough supplies to see you through the next season.  You don’t want to make a trip back into town during the growing season!  The objective of the game is to trade for as many of your family’s needs as possible.  

This is how we’ll play the game:

1. You will each receive a Family Identity Card and a basket full of wares and that you will be bartering with.   Your basket may also contain a coin (a replica Liberty dollar from 1859) with which to purchase goods and services.

2. You will be visiting local tradesmen to barter for goods that your family needs.  You will have four minutes at each site in which to meet a tradesperson and barter.  First you will greet the tradesperson and learn a little about the work of that trade and the goods or services that person provides.  Then you will propose a trade.  When you have both agreed on a trade, you will roll the die to see if your trade is a match in value (evens = yes, odds = no).  Negotiations will continue until your four minutes is up.  You may barter with goods or cash (if you’re fortunate enough to have any!)

3. As sometimes happens in real life, there will be times when both good and bad luck visit your family.  After the second round of trade, we will pause to pick chance cards.  Depending on the luck of your draw, you will need to adjust your bartering basket.  Also, in the last few minutes of the game, you will have a chance to barter at a shop you missed, or with another farm family, to find the goods that appear on your list.

4. You will need to listen carefully for the bell.  When it rings, your time at the trades shop is done.  When it rings loudly, your family must immediately sit down, each person on a different floor tile.  Wait quietly for instructions.

5. Who will win this game?  The class with the most successful families, who have been able to gather all the goods and services they require.

6. As you play, you need to remember one VERY important thing:  You are going to take what you learn here back to teach the first and second graders.  Pay attention closely and try to remember what you learned about each trade! 

Are there any questions?


Begin Game (35 minutes) 

1.“Let’s get ready to play.  The volunteers will give the baskets to the families that are quiet and ready.  You will have four minutes to:

• Look at your goods

• Read your Family Identity Card 

• Check your list of needs on your Checklist

• Choose your head of family, who will barter and roll the die at the first shop.

Everyone will get a chance to head the family at least one time.”


2. Set the timer for four minutes.  Hand out baskets.  Circulate to help students get organized. 


3. “Are you ready to begin?  Remember to listen for the bell that tells you you’re your time is up at a shop.  Each family will begin bartering at the first shop on their list.  You may start your quest now.”


4. Set the timer for four minutes.  Circulate and assist students and any volunteer tradespeople who might need help.


5. Ring bell softly at four minutes and say, “Go to the next shop on your list and begin your bartering for the next trade.”


6. Repeat steps 5 and 6.


7. Ring the bell loudly at four minutes and say, “Real life is about to visit your family.  When I say your family’s name, the head of the family will choose a chance card from the basket and read it aloud while everyone listens.  Will fortune favor them?  We’ll find out!  All baskets will be adjusted immediately after the cards are read aloud.  Remember that in the last four minutes you may go back and fix a trade if you’ve lost or gained a resource.”  Call each head of family one at a time to choose a card.  The family head should read each card aloud.  Adjust goods and services in baskets accordingly.


8. “We will now continue our game.  Move to the next trade shop and meet your neighbor!”


9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 twice more.


10. Ring the bell loudly at four minutes and say, “Your family will have four minutes to go back and negotiate with a tradesperson or barter with your fellow farm families.  Remember that the goal of the game is to come home with all the goods on your list of needs.  You may also trade for things you might want.  Good luck!”  Set the timer for four minutes.  Circulate and assist students and volunteers who might need help.


11. Ring the bell loudly at four minutes and say, “Our game is now done.  Please sit on the benches where you began the game.  When you’re sitting quietly I will give further instructions.”


12. Say, “As a family, look at your Checklist and compare that to what you have in your basket.  Add up the number of items you bought. Now add the number of items from your farm that are still in your basket.  If you have a coin, add that to your total!  Give the basket and Checklist to the volunteer who comes to your group.  Tell the volunteer how many goods and services you had.  We will add the group totals and will announce the class total at the end of our discussion.”


13. End by saying, “Stay where you are sitting and we will end with time for discussion.”


Conclusion:  (5-10 minutes)


1. Say: “Raise your hand if you your family was successful in getting its needs met.

2. What were the benefits of bartering?  What did you like?

3. What was challenging?

4. Would bartering like this work today?  Why or why not?

5. What did this teach you about interdependence of people more than a century ago?

6. You will be using some of the game supplies from the museum back at Central School to teach the first and second graders about barter.  What will you tell them?”





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