While studying the history of coins we were told at school that these were developed because of inadequacies in the barter system that prevailed previously. A sheep or goat could not have been cut into pieces to pay for a lesser priced commodity.
Since then, innumerable varieties of coins (and currency notes) have been developed. At first glance, it may seem that we have left the barter system far behind.
Well, that is not entirely true. The barter system continues to be in vogue in one form or the other even in the 21st century.
In India, you will find women carrying on their heads big baskets stuffed with stainless steel utensils. This is quite a familiar sight in this vast country.
The merchandise they carry includes items ranging from spoons to containers to store flour. These women, who come from the lower strata of society, do not sell their wares for cash.
For decades, they have accepted old clothes in exchange for their goods under a form of barter system. It is the bargaining skill of the hawker and the other party that decides the price - that is, how many items of clothing and of what kind should be exchanged for the stainless steel utensils.
Needless to say, these bartan walis (utensil hawkers) go for the least worn and least damaged clothes. If they could, they would like to get away with the garments you bought only last week.
The lady of the house thinks that she has struck a good bargain by discarding what she calls 'old and worn out clothes'. But in many cases, she discovers later that the hawker has outsmarted her - the utensils she received were of inferior quality.
After mending the almost new clothes and making them look as though they were recently tailored, the hawkers sell them to willing buyers from the lower strata who cannot afford to buy new clothes.
Old meets new
I was pleasantly surprised to discover the other day that this barter system is being replicated in the West, albeit in another form. The items that are exchanged are baby clothes, but the job is done not by hawkers but by US-based websites.
Apparently, the need for online swapping of "tradeable" clothes arose because of the fast rate at which infants and toddlers grow. Parents discover much to their chagrin that in no time their kid has outgrown the expensive garments they had so fondly bought for him or her after a hectic search in the market.
These gently used clothes might now fit some other small child and the garments of another grown up child might be of use to their own little one. A decent bargain would solve the practical problems of two or more sets of parents. They don't have to buy new garments and would thus save money.
Calling it 'online baby clothing swap', swapbabygoods.com, a free site, allows visitors to register and then list the clothes (or any other baby goods) they want to swap or sell. They can then choose from several hundred options of available clothes.
Listings are sorted by size and when you click on an available option, such as an outfit for a nine-month-old boy, you can also click on the swappers' wishlist to see what items he or she is looking to acquire.
Clearly, the good old barter system remains relevant - even in this day and age.
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.