What is the Sawbuck

Sawbuck is a slang term for a U.S. 10-dollar bill. Some believe the slang derives from the X-shaped, sawbuck rack, used for holding and cutting wood. Since, initially, the U.S. Treasury used Roman numerals on its banknotes, and X is the representation for ten, this is a plausible explanation.

The slang term became popular in the 19th century.


During the 1800s, sawbucks were tools that saw frequent use in many American households. Cast iron cookstoves anchored most kitchen spaces and served, in many cases, as both a way to cook food and as a source of heat. These stoves could use either coal or wood. The use of wood was more prevalent in rural areas, and coal saw use in urban settings. Most people had the X-shaped sawbuck in the backyard to cut logs into the size needed to burn in these stoves. Unlike a sawhorse, which raises and supports wood for sawing, a sawbuck secures the wood in a cradle, mitigating slipping and kickback when cutting, and allowing easy use by children, and adult women and men.

Conjecture has it that use of the term buck to indicate money comes from colonial trading days when the monetary exchange for goods had its basis on a buckskin or deer hide. The earliest written reference is a 1748 journal entry by Pennsylvania pioneer Conrad Weiser. Weiser used the term frequently, with the first being on page 41 of the journal when he wrote that "a cask of whiskey shall be sold to your for 5 bucks". Another early citing, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is an 1856 entry in the Democratic State Journal listing the fine assessed for assault and battery as 20 bucks.

Sawbuck Circulation and Design

U.S. dollar coins began circulation sometime shortly after 1792 with paper currency introduced in 1861.

Created in 1862, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) develops and produces all U.S. paper currency. The first ten-dollar banknote, issued in 1861, featured a small portrait of Abraham Lincoln and the Roman numeral X on the reverse. These bills were demand notes, or the equivalent of a Treasury Note (T-Note) today.

Many believe this banknote with the Roman X is the origin of the use of the term sawbuck for the ten-dollar bill. However, the X disappeared from the reverse of the ten-dollar note by 1880 in favor of various designs including the number 10, elaborate designs, images of gold coins, Columbia, and the word silver on the silver certificate notes.

Today, the bill features a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, but he did not arrive there until the 1929 series of banknotes. Earlier portraits include:

  • 1863 Salmon P. Chase the 6th Chief Justice of the U.S
  • 1869 Daniel Webster on the left-hand side and Pocahontas' presentation to the English Royal Court on the right
  • 1870 Benjamin Franklin, flying his kite
  • 1878 Robert Morris founding father, merchant, and signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • 1886 Thomas A. Hendricks 21st Vice-President of the U.S.
  • 1890 Philip Sheridan Union general during the Civil War
  • 1901 Meriweather Lewis and William Clark explorers of the Louisiana Purchase territory
  • 1907 Michael Hillegas first Treasurer of the U.S.
  • 1914 Andrew Jackson 7th President of the U.S. and the current occupant of the $20 note

The use of the slang term sawbuck has declined over the years. Partially, this may be due to the less frequent use of Roman numerals both on currencies and in everyday life. But, more likely the term fell out of usage due to modernizations made to cookstoves, and the abandoning of the sawbuck use.