The History of the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement by which prizes are allocated by chance. The prize in this case is money, though it can also be goods or services. A number of governments and private entities operate lotteries. People who play them typically buy tickets for a chance to win a prize in the form of cash or goods. Some of these are state-run lotteries, while others are privately run, and some are charitable organizations that award prizes to those who donate funds to the organization.

People have been playing the lottery since ancient times. There is a biblical reference to giving away property and slaves by lot (Numbers 26:55-56) and a Latin proverb that says, “Lottere in June, corn be heavy soon.” The modern term lottery was first used in English in the 15th century, with early European lotteries involving tickets sold for a drawing for prizes of money or other valuables. Probably the first public lotteries to offer ticket sales with money prizes were in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns raised money for town fortifications or to help poor families. King Francis I of France was credited with establishing the first French lottery in 1539.

Despite the moral and ethical objections to gambling, the lottery’s defenders argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let them do it legally? This argument weakened the resistance to gambling and gave states a reason to approve lottery programs. Lottery advocates also argued that states could use the money to fund government services without burdening middle-class and working-class taxpayers. This arrangement, which flourished in the immediate post-World War II period, eventually crumbled to a halt as states faced economic upheavals and a growing population of lottery players.

Although defenders of the lottery often argue that the game’s popularity is due to the fact that players do not understand how unlikely it is to win, in reality this is a blatantly false claim. As economist and sociologist Joshua Cohen has documented, lottery spending rises when incomes decline, unemployment rates increase, or poverty and poverty-related social problems are high. Moreover, lottery advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and Black or Hispanic.

Ultimately, the success or failure of a lottery depends on the ability of its promoters to persuade people to play it and then to keep them coming back for more. This is not an easy feat. Advertisers and marketers employ a variety of techniques to manipulate the psychology of the lottery-player audience, just as they do with the tobacco or video-game audiences. They use everything from color schemes to product placement to the math behind lottery numbers to keep people hooked. Whether or not the gamblers realize it, they are being brainwashed by lottery marketers. The story of the short lottery essay is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The characters in the story are all manipulated and coerced into participating in the lottery, which is a dangerous and destructive force that threatens their health, wealth, and lives.