Bartering—the exchange of goods or services between two parties for mutual advantage—predates the use of currency and has probably been around since the dawn of humankind. It has even been argued that if symbiotic relationships are construed as a form of bartering, plants and animals engage in bartering as well.
According to “The History of Money,” a PBS online article from NOVA (www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/moolah/history.html), “Cattle, which include anything from cows, to sheep, to camels are the first and oldest form of money”—though it’s hard to imagine the kind of purse you’d need to carry a cow or how you’d get change for a camel! But even when metal coins first appeared in China around 1000 bc and then elsewhere, such as Greece, Turkey (then known as Lydia), and Persia, around 500 bc, not everyone had access to coinage, and bartering continued to be a common way for people to get things they needed in exchange for things they had. We should all be glad, in any case, that tax misdeeds are punished, today, only with fines or jail time—unlike the Danes that lived in Ireland around ad 800–900 who, if they failed to pay the Danish poll tax, had their noses slit—hence the phrase “paying through the nose”!
The overlap of bartering and currency-based economies has never ceased entirely. However, despite former Nevada state GOP chair Sue Lowden’s recent suggestion that health care costs be lowered by having people barter with their doctors (which I’m sure would be ever-so-appealing to your HMO or PPO!), bartering has decidedly not been a primary means of obtaining goods and services for people in this country for quite some time. Our current economy, though, in which money can be as hard to come by as a pocketful of sheep, has caused a resurgence of bartering.
And given this climate, I have to say that having something like massage to trade has come in very handy. I am, I think I can safely say, the envy of all my friends in fields like academia, social work, and data processing. For the most part, I’ve traded massage for personal training sessions, but I have also traded for construction work on my home, design work for my business, and getting a handmade belt made for my kickass Monster Half-Marathon finisher’s belt buckle. Theoretically, I have editing and writing services to barter as well, but frankly, not only do people have much less need for those (or think they do!), but having your punctuation checked is far less alluring to most folks than getting your stress relieved.
There are limits, of course—it’s not like I can offer a massage to someone at AT&T in exchange for some phone service or at Jewel Foods for bread and milk. But small businesses of all manner, as well as individuals, seem open to the idea of doing trades. And for me it’s been a huge help with getting some of the things I need or want that I wouldn’t have been able otherwise to afford right now.
Making sure the trades are fair to both parties is potentially tricky, but so far, using my hourly massage rate as a gauge has made it relatively easy to ensure equity. It also bears considering whether something like massage can ethically be traded for certain kinds of services, especially when there is an ongoing relationship with those you hope to trade with. For instance, I think you’d have to question the professionalism of any psychotherapist who was willing to trade counseling for massage—boundary issues spring to mind. . . .
But in the main, having a spare massage in my wallet to use for “buying” certain goods and services has been great. It really is win-win. And right now I’ve got my eye on a birch sapling over at the local garden center. Not sure how many massages it would cost (or even if they’d be willing), but whatever the price, it would be worth it just to drive the sapling home in the box of my cargo bike!