What Does Sawbuck Mean?

Sawbuck, a term derived from the resemblance of the carpentry tool to the Roman numeral X, is commonly used by interbank forex dealers to signify a transaction of $10 million U.S. dollars (USD).

Key Takeaways

  • Sawbuck, a term derived from the resemblance of the carpentry tool to the Roman numeral X, is commonly used by interbank forex dealers to signify a transaction of $10 million U.S. dollars (USD).
  • Prior to the formation of the Federal Reserve, the entity that was tasked with issuing fiat currency was the U.S. Treasury and they chose to use Roman numerals on U.S. banknotes, which meant that X represented the number ten.
  • During the 1800s, sawbucks were tools that saw frequent use in many American households in order to cut logs into the size needed to burn in cast iron cook stoves.

Understanding Sawbuck

Sawbuck is a slang term for the X-shaped, sawbuck rack, which is used for holding and cutting wood. Prior to the formation of the Federal Reserve, the entity that was tasked with issuing fiat currency was the U.S. Treasury. They chose to use Roman numerals on U.S. banknotes, which meant that X represented the number ten.

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 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, as well as 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 sixth 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, seventh 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. What's more likely is that the term fell out of usage due to the disappearance of cook stoves and the diminishing usage of sawbucks.

History of Sawbuck

During the 1800s, sawbucks were tools that saw frequent use in many American households. Cast iron cook stoves 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, as well as 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 you for five 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.