Bartering and Trading: Prison Garden, Doll Making Parties, and Other Arrangements

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Reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS inspired one prisoner to establish a prison garden.
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A Washington state reader traded feline-enabled pest control services for fresh-off-the-tree apples.
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The timely popularity of Cabbage Patch Dolls enabled one dollar maker to barter doll making lessons for a wide assortment of services.
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A teacher in need of earth science supplies traded with a stone carver for rock samples.

Way back in January 1976, we initiated this regular feature on bartering and trading and asked you to share stories about your non-cash transactions. Nearly ten years later it’s still going strong.

Prison Garden

In the state penitentiary, where prisoners aren’t allowed to have money, a man has to know how to barter! And when I traded one stack of magazines for another and found my first copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I knew I’d discovered a treasure. After reading your magazine — which put so many of my dreams into words — I just had to get my hands into the soil!

So I bartered again … this time with the warden: I’d keep his flower bed weed-free if I could have a 20′ X 20′ plot of ground to garden. Then I traded an afghan I’d crocheted during the winter for several packages of vegetable seeds. The ground had been in clover for more than 50 years, so with the help of a shovel—the only tool I was allowed to use—and some composted scraps from the chow hall, I soon had really fine soil.

Many five-gallon buckets of water later, my first-ever garden was bursting into bloom! I couldn’t believe how many vegetables I harvested. What I couldn’t eat myself I swapped: tomatoes for pairs of jeans, radishes for books and magazines, cabbages for a fan, and watermelons for the typewriter I’m using to write this letter! But the best thing that came out of my garden was a feeling of accomplishment from hard work. Even in prison a man can dream of self-sufficiency and freedom, and — as I now know — he can also work toward it!


Doll Making Parties

I used to envy the people whose successful small businesses were described in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Then, in mid-1982, I decided to join them and start a business of my own. Soft-sculptured dolls were becoming quite popular, and for less than $20, I bought several how-to books, some fabric, fiberfill, and thread, and tried my hand at doll making. The first two seemed to take forever to complete, but I was able to sell them for $40 apiece. That was enough incentive to keep me making the dolls, and I sold about one a week during the rest of 1982 and for most of 1983.

Then late in 1983 the Cabbage Patch phenomenon hit. I thought the popularity of those dolls would kill what little business I had, but oh was I wrong! Every child wanted a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, and the “official” versions were simply not available in the stores. And by sheer luck my doll was remarkably similar to the Cabbage Patch “kids.” I could hardly keep up with the orders! I cleared $300 to $400 a week that November and December. Because I figured the demand would die a natural death after Christmas, I worked long and hard to make the most of the boom.

Well, the demand didn’t die; it only rested for a few weeks. Then calls started coming in again. In addition, people who couldn’t bring themselves to pay $40 for a doll were buying kits and trying to make the toys themselves. However, many of these people were finding doll making too difficult, or they weren’t pleased with the results they were able to achieve. So, to help out beginners, I began organizing doll-making parties.

For these occasions, a hostess invites at least six guests, who each pay $20, to her home. In return for her hospitality, she receives a doll-making kit free. I furnish machine-sewn and stuffed doll bodies, along with thread, needles, and paint, and give step-by-step directions and guidance for hand sculpturing the dolls. I net $100 to $200 from each two-evening party (it takes two get-togethers to complete the dolls).

The doll-making parties have become extremely popular, and word of mouth is the only advertising I’ve needed to use. Many people attend two or three parties, and a teacher I know actually hosted four of the affairs so she could make dolls for all of her daughters.

The advantages of my doll-making enterprise are numerous. For one thing, because the dolls are popular, I have real bartering power. I’ve traded them for auto repairs and orthodontic care! (I’ve saved a great deal of money by giving the dolls as gifts, too.)

The cost of materials is small, about $5.00 for a completed, dressed doll and $2.00 for a kit. Best of all, I make the kits at home in my spare time. I can do the sewing in waiting rooms and even at my son’s little league ball games. The dolls draw attention, and I’ve taken many orders while working in public places.

All in all, I’m quite happy with my bootstrap business. I’ve netted an average of $150 a week for the past couple of years, doing something I truly enjoy. Thanks, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for showing me that it can be done and encouraging me to give it a try.


Earth Science Supplies

Last year our school’s enrollment and budget slid down while prices continued to climb, and I was left with little money to purchase supplies for my eighth-grade earth-science class. I needed some rock samples but knew that those the science-supply houses offered were expensive; they were also small and of poor quality.

Then I thought of the local monument shop: Headstones are carved from many different kinds of rock, and usually only quality material is used. The next day I stopped by with my pickup truck, and sure enough, the owner was happy to trade his scrap pieces for a cleaner work yard … and I didn’t mind swapping a bit of muscle work for a truckload of excellent specimens.

Later, a pet-store owner who needed some decorative rocks for his fish tanks took my leftovers in exchange for a ten-gallon aquarium — one more free teaching aid for my students!


Cat for Hire

I was at a tag sale in a neighbor’s yard one blustery fall day when I noticed several trees loaded with (yum!) bright red apples. In chatting with the owner, I learned she was playing hostess to some unwelcome guests: The cool weather had driven mice inside her house. She was reluctant to use poison around her small children, and she was too squeamish to set traps for the intruders.

I thought of my cat at home (whose appetite for rodents equals mine for apples) and proposed a swap. I’d bicycle my kitty over at night (she loves to ride) and leave her with litter box, water, and empty stomach. While the family slept, my ferocious mouser would have the run of the house; then I’d ride back and retrieve her the next morning. And in return, I’d get my pick of all those apples about to litter the yard. It worked out fine. My neighbor got her house freed of pests and her yard cleared of a potential mess, and Kitty and I got our fill of our favorite treats, so everyone was happy … except, of course, the mice.