Mrs. Evelyn Harris is a woman after my own heart, and maybe after yours. I have never met her and am not taking any steps to amend the status quo. I don’t believe that I would enjoy her company, but, still, she’s a woman after my own heart. She is a widow with five children and three mortgaged farms. But she grows other things on them, too, such as sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, chickens, berries, fruits and vegetables and even, in a manner of speaking, firewood. So far as I am aware she’s no Jewess, but she would be a disgrace to no race.
I have become aware of her existence through the publication of a book written by her, “Barter Lady: A Woman Farmer Sees It Through.” In other words, Mrs. Harris sees it through by barter, and she has seen it through long after, perhaps, most men would have given up and taken the trail that leads over the hill to the poor house, to be informed, when they reached it, that it, too, was bankrupt.
But Mrs. Harris stuck it out on her farm, on which seem to have kept on growing food in manifold varieties. And for the past decade, more or less, she has been trading potatoes and fire wood, Christmas trees and chickens, berries and fruits, eggs and vegetables, homemade sausages and spare ribs, truckloads of corn cobs and even a Summer vacation for the following goods and services: gasoline, permanent waves, clothing, groceries, haircuts for the kids, school tuition, magazine subscriptions, a surgical operation and the digging of a well. She believes in diversified crops, maintains orchards and berry patches of wide dimensions, sends turkeys to market in cellophane and plants a new tree for every old one which she chops down. It is to be hoped, if you’re a friend of Mrs. Harris’, that she will receive royalties on her book in good coin of the realm so that she may refresh her memory of the sight of checks and other acceptable tokens for the goods which she barters and the goods she receives.
There is much more in the book than that, but I am interested chiefly in the large-scale revelation this affords of the ways in which people trade directly the goods and services they have for the goods and services they require, without troubling to break the transaction clear in the middle by the exchange of their goods for money and a re-exchange of their money for goods. I have myself, in a small way, practiced barter and have thought it fun. Of course, I haven’t acres and acres and things to grow on them, and, after all, I have been able to barter only for the trimmings of life, such things as pictures and books, not rent and food, and clothing.
The ways in which city people earn their livelihoods militates against their living by barter, but within limits it can be done. One of our colleagues here in the office edited an artist’s manuscript in return for illustrations for his own forthcoming publication, a book of verse. An artist friend of mine paid for medical services with one set of pictures to his physician and paid the drug store owner with another set for medicines and drug supplies. Down at one of the Greenwich Village restaurants I saw a painting by an artist enjoying national reputation. The restaurant had acquired it by paying the artist seventeen meals.
From one of the oldest art publishing houses in the world I once accepted five volumes of reproductions of paintings and etchings in return for a slight service for which I might have demanded, and received, guineas of the British Realm. An artist from whom, some time ago, I acquired a water color and a lithograph refused to be paid in money, insisting on books, and explaining that since he would exchange the money I would give him for books, he might as well take the books now, the most succinct argument against the intermediary use of money I have heard. The wife of this same artist works in a real estate office so many hours a week, in return for which her husband enjoys the rent-free use of a studio.
Of course there is dishonest bartering, too, when you pay with what is not yours and receive a private benefit. I mean such barterings as that of Kitchen the writer and Holmes the travel lecturer, both of whom received free trips to and through Germany in return for which they were to write and lecture in laudation of the Third Reich. What they were paying in return was their influence with their public, which it was not for them to trade.
Of course there are comic possibilities in barter. For example: a young lawyer living in our house has just become the father of a nine-pounder. This lawyer is in the habit of paying cash on delivery, but assuming that he had no cash, it would be easy to see him striking a bargain whereby he pays for the delivery by undertaking to collect so many thousand dollars of the doctor’s bad, or not entirely good, debts. Any one with a little bit of imagination could go on from this point. I myself would be happy to offer a certain amount of editorial knowledge, not to mention acumen, for just the rent. Do I hear any offers?
Then there’s barter that’s poetic justice. Every comic on a radio program ought to be compelled to take the major part of his pay in the goods marketed by his sponsor. Fred Allen should take part of his pay in Ipana tooth paste and Sal Hepatica. Eddie Cantor and Jimmie Durante should take theirs in carloads of Chase and Sanborn coffee, and Ed Wynn should be able to fill up his horse more than several times on Texaco gasoline. Joe Penner, the duck salesman, should take his pay out in bread, and Rudy Vallee, the crooner, in yeast. Of course we wouldn’t want this system applied too indiscriminately, or applied to real brain workers such as your not too humble servant.
In the column published in this space last Thursday I adverted, with pleasant noises of crunching, to the taste of bacon, as part of a regal breakfast. The reader who survived to read the column to the end realized that the eating of bacon and the regal breakfast were part of a dream. But it has been pointed out to me that I should not have bacon even in my dream breakfasts and I have promised to be good, at least so far as abstention from bacon will make me good.