The History of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, including the Bible. In modern times, lotteries have become a way for state governments to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which are both extremely unpopular with voters. Cohen’s book traces the lottery’s history from its beginnings through to its current incarnation.

In the beginning, states used lotteries to raise money for town fortifications, wars, public-works projects, and college scholarships. The first lottery was chartered by King James I in 1612, to fund the Jamestown settlement. Lotteries quickly spread to the Netherlands, where they were hailed as a painless form of taxation. The first Dutch state-owned lottery, called the Staatsloterij, opened in 1726.

Lotteries have grown in popularity, largely because people tend to believe that they are less risky than other forms of gambling, such as the stock market or sports betting. In addition, lottery tickets are cheap and easy to purchase. For these reasons, state lotteries are highly addictive; everything about them, from ad campaigns to the math behind the odds, is designed to keep people hooked.

In the late nineteen-sixties, a national tax revolt erupted, as voters demanded lower property and income taxes, and federal funds to state coffers shrank. As the competition for dollars intensified, more and more states turned to lotteries to fill their coffers without provoking voters’ hostility toward new taxes. New Hampshire became the first to introduce a state-run lottery in 1964; thirteen more states followed suit in the next decade, all of them in the Northeast and Rust Belt.