The village economy was based on a form of debit and credit bookkeeping known in the nineteenth century as bartering. In the barter economy local merchants, craftsmen, and farmers maintained records of transactions and trusted their neighbors enough to allow a line of credit. Customers would settle accounts with goods and labor and—less often—with cash. This lesson uses Donald Hall’s Ox-Cart Man and a nineteenth-century daybook to illustrate the barter economy.

Focusing Question

How did farmers, merchants, and artisans trade for goods and labor without cash? How did the barter economy work?

Topical Understandings

Farmers, merchants, and artisans bartered their goods and labor.
Bartering was a form of bookkeeping that allowed farmers, merchants, and artisans to provide each other with lines of credit.
The season of the year dictated what was being traded in the New England village.

Background Information

The Debit Economy of 1830s New England


Picture Book Connection: Donald Hall, Ox-Cart Man
Primary Source: Daybook, December 25, 1848, and worksheet


  1. Introduction discussion
  2. Ask your class what they think bartering is. Ask what happens if one person has something to trade that is worth more than what the other person has. What do you do?
  3. Read Ox-Cart Man to your students. Afterwards, make a list of what the Ox-Cart Man traded. What did he sell? What did he buy? Explain that even though the story shows the Ox-Cart Man with some coins in his pocket, there was actually very little cash in New England at this time. People traded with each other instead.
  4. Ox-Cart Man is told from the point of view of someone who would have been a customer at the general store. What if the story were about the storekeeper? What might his day have been like? What did he sell and what did he buy or trade? When the Ox-Cart Man came to the general store, the storekeeper would have opened a big 2-columned account book and listed everything the Ox-Cart Man sold to him in a credit column and everything the Ox-Cart Man bought from him in a debit column.Create a 2-column chart on the board and list everything the Ox-Cart Man bought and sold in the appropriate debit and credit columns.
  5. Merchants also kept daybooks, which were like diaries listing every transaction that happened over the day. If someone came in to sell, say, pork, the merchant would write down the amount of pork and how much it was worth. He would put a big CR next to the entry for the pork because the customer would now have credit with the store. If someone came in to buy some fabric, the merchant would list the amount of fabric and how much it was worth. He would put a big DR next to the fabric entry because the customer now owed him that much money. If the customer was a farmer, he would pay back his debt by bringing a farm good to sell to the store at another time.Provide students with the December daybook page and worksheet. Have them circle all the DR transactions in red and all the CR transactions in green. Use the worksheet to categorize what was being traded in this village store.
  6. Return to the class definition of bartering. Can they expand their definition?