The History of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is attested in many ancient documents, including the Bible. Lotteries became common in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and by the seventeenth century they were being used in public and private organizations to finance everything from town fortifications to wars. They spread to America, and the first state-sponsored lottery was chartered in 1612, after which they were widely used by American colonists to fund everything from towns to churches to colleges.

In the early nineteen-twenties, New Hampshire approved the nation’s first state lottery, and other states followed suit despite strong Protestant opposition to gambling (though lottery tickets cost only ten shillings back then, which was more than enough to buy you a glass of wine or a Snickers bar). The state lottery’s popularity was helped by America’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt, as its advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections to state-sponsored gambling.

These new proponents of the lottery argued that, since people would gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. In addition, they argued, state-run lotteries would attract wealthy players, whose purchases were less likely to crowd out lower-income players. But these arguments lacked any empirical support, and research on the economics of the lottery has shown that rich people are no more likely to play than poor people. In fact, wealthier people buy fewer tickets than the poor, and their purchases tend to represent far smaller percentages of income.