The History of the Lottery

Often, people who have been playing the lottery for years, and who spend fifty, even a hundred dollars a week on tickets, defy the assumptions one would make going into a conversation about their behavior. These people are clear-eyed about the odds. They know that the big prizes are unlikely to be theirs. They have all sorts of quote-unquote systems — totally irrational by statistical reasoning — about which stores and what times to buy, which numbers to choose and what types of tickets to purchase. But they also know that it’s possible to lose, and that if they do, it’ll be a long shot.

Lottery first appeared in Europe during the fourteen-hundreds, with towns attempting to raise money for fortifications and charity for the poor. Francis I of France sanctioned the sale of public tickets, and the idea spread. Early America was receptive as well, despite Protestant proscriptions on gambling. Lotteries were used to fund everything from churches to civil defense, and the Continental Congress even tried a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

But by the nineteen-seventies, as the income gap widened and pensions and job security eroded, the lottery’s allure grew stronger than ever. The idea that you could win a jackpot and become rich in an instant — as the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson shows — seemed like the perfect antidote to the sense of emptiness many felt in their lives. And so, in most states, governments began selling state-run lotteries.