The History of the Lottery


Almost everybody dreams of winning the lottery. For many, it’s a way to escape the grind of everyday life, a chance to do something a little out of the ordinary, even if that “something” is as modest as an apartment in a desirable neighborhood or the ability to afford a college education for one’s children. But the odds are against anyone winning. This paradox has given rise to a peculiar, counterintuitive phenomenon: the more the jackpots grow, the more people want to play.

It’s a phenomenon that stretches back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to draw lots to divide land among the Israelites; Roman emperors used them to give away slaves; and British colonists brought lotteries to America, where they were a frequent source of local revenue. The initial reaction to them was largely negative, with ten states banning them between 1844 and 1859. But lotteries subsequently became an integral part of American life, both private and public: They financed roads, canals, churches, libraries, colleges, universities, and government projects. The foundation of Princeton and Columbia were financed by lotteries, and, in the 1740s, the colonies used them to finance their local militias and town fortifications.

The first recorded use of the word “lottery” appears in English in the fifteenth century, when a spokesman for a London church described how a group of people had been drawn from all the city’s parishes to receive a large sum of money. By the seventeenth century, public lotteries were common in the Low Countries, where they raised money to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. They also served as a painless form of taxation.

In the late twentieth century, however, a national tax revolt began to grow, and lotteries were a favorite target. Some critics saw them as a hidden tax, and others complained that they were exploiting working-class anxiety about their financial futures. Regardless of these concerns, the popularity of lotteries increased as the income gap widened, pensions and health-care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that a person’s hard work and prudent saving would ensure that he or she was better off than his or her parents waned.

Now, lottery commissioners rely on two messages. The first is that playing the lottery is fun, and the second is that you can feel good about yourself because, even if you lose, you’re doing your civic duty by buying a ticket. Both are false, but they help obscure how regressive the games really are. I’ve spoken to a number of committed lottery players who spend $50 or $100 a week, and I’ve found that they don’t take the game lightly, despite the messages to the contrary. They know that the odds are bad and they’re not smart enough to quit. That makes them all the more interesting to me. —By Andrew Cohen, a professor of history at the University of Toronto and the author of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? The History of Lotteries.”