The History of the Lottery

A contest or game in which tokens are distributed or sold, with prizes awarded to those whose numbers are drawn by lot. Often sponsored by states or other organizations for the purpose of raising funds.

The origin of the word lottery is obscure, but it may derive from Old English lotinge, “the action of drawing lots”; or perhaps from Middle Dutch loterie, a calque on Middle French loterie, itself a calque on French lot (“fate”). A lottery involves guessing an amount of numbers within a given range—for example, New York’s Powerball requires six numbers between one and fifty-nine. In some cases, the total prize pool consists of only a single large sum, while in others it includes a series of smaller prizes. The chances of winning the big prize are extremely low, but people play for fun and hope that their numbers will be the ones selected.

As far back as the early modern era, however, people have used lotteries to raise money for all kinds of purposes, from a church bazaar to building the Great Wall of China. Public lotteries were established in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to raise funds for town fortifications, to help the poor, and for other civic purposes.

In the seventeenth century, private lotteries were popular in England and America as means to sell products or properties for more money than could be obtained through a conventional sale. They were also used to fund such projects as the construction of many American colleges—including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, King’s College (now part of the University of the South), and Williams and Mary—and to finance the Continental Congress.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as state taxes rose in response to population growth and inflation, the popularity of lottery playing declined. But in the nineteen-sixties, as income inequality widened and health care costs increased, lottery participation rose sharply. Lottery advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections by arguing that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the proceeds and use them to fund services that voters did not want to see cut.

In the nineteen-eighties, as a result of a nationwide tax revolt (which culminated in California’s Proposition 13, cutting property taxes by almost sixty per cent), state governments’ revenue streams dried up. To make up the difference, many states turned to gambling, and a new generation of people came to believe that winning the lottery would be their ticket to a better life. The hysteria surrounding the lottery accelerated during this period of economic upheaval, and the idea that there really was a way to change your fate grew more believable with each passing jackpot. The New York Times Magazine ran Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story, “The Lottery,” in 1948, and it generated more letters to the magazine than any work of fiction had ever received before. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious, and mostly bewildered.