The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for prizes. The word is probably derived from the Dutch noun lot, which may be a calque on Middle French loterie “action of drawing lots,” or from the Latin verb lotere “to draw.” Generally, prizes are determined by chance, and the winners are chosen by the drawing of a single number from a pool of numbers. In the modern sense of the word, the process is regulated and overseen by government agencies. In some cases, the winners must prove their identity before being awarded the prize.

The concept of distributing property or other assets by lot dates back to ancient times. In the Bible, for example, the Lord instructed Moses to divide land among the Israelites by lot; a similar practice was used by Roman emperors as part of Saturnalian feasts and other entertainments. A popular dinner entertainment in ancient Rome was the apophoreta, in which guests received pieces of wood with symbols on them and then, toward the end of the meal, the host held a lottery in which the symbols were drawn for prizes that each guest took home.

In the eighteenth century, lotteries became more widespread in England and the United States, and they helped to finance such notable American institutions as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and William and Mary. In the nineteenth century, however, their popularity waned. As states grappled with soaring costs and a ballooning population, they found it difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

To fill the gap, a growing number of states began to organize state-run lotteries. As Cohen explains, these new advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections and argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. The argument worked, and in the late nineteen-sixties, states that had long resisted tax increases approved lotteries as a way to fund social programs.

Rich people play the lottery, too, but they buy fewer tickets than poorer people and, by virtue of their greater incomes, spend a smaller percentage of their income on them. Nevertheless, if they win big, it can change their lives dramatically.

While the lottery is widely viewed as an acceptable and harmless way to raise money, critics have charged that it is addictive, wasteful, and unfair. In addition, the odds of winning are slim to nonexistent—statistically, it is much more likely that one will be struck by lightning than win the lottery. Despite these concerns, some people still feel compelled to play. Some of them even argue that, since there is an inextricable human urge to gamble, governments should legalize it. This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Subscribe to the magazine.

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