History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize a state or national lottery. Many countries have private lottery games that award money prizes, but the modern state-run lottery is a comparatively recent development. Governments have long been concerned about the problem of gambling, and they are increasingly seeking to regulate it. This has led to a rise in the popularity of the lottery, which is one of the few gambling activities with wide-spread acceptance.

In the beginning, it was a simple form of public entertainment: dinner parties often featured apophoreta (Greek for “that which is carried home”) in which guests brought pieces of wood with symbols on them back to the host, who then held a drawing for a prize at the end of the evening. Later, the Roman emperors used this technique to distribute land, slaves, and other property among their subjects during Saturnalian feasts. In the 17th century, it became commonplace in England and America to hold lotteries to raise money for a variety of public uses. The Continental Congress, for example, voted to establish a lottery to help fund the Revolutionary War. In the 18th century, private lottery operations raised money for construction of American colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to build roads across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

By the early 1900s, states began establishing their own state-run lotteries. Most states began with a single game or with a limited number of games, but they soon expanded into new forms of gambling, such as keno and video poker, and promoted these activities through aggressive advertising. As a result, lottery revenues began to grow rapidly.

Today, most state lotteries have a monopoly on their games and operate as quasi-public corporations that must maximize revenue. This requires a heavy emphasis on marketing, particularly through the use of television ads. While the advertising industry has strict rules to avoid misleading the public, critics argue that lottery advertising frequently misrepresents the odds of winning (e.g., by highlighting how certain numbers have come up more often than others) and inflates the value of winning money (lotto jackpots are usually paid out in installments over 20 years, during which inflation dramatically erodes the initial amount).

Moreover, many state lotteries have become dependent on their revenues and tend to make policy decisions in a piecemeal and incremental way, with little consideration for the larger implications of gambling. In other words, they are run at cross-purposes to the state’s gambling policies and broader interests. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that lottery officials often have very little public oversight and are subject to powerful financial pressures from their own lobbyists, convenience store operators, lottery suppliers, teachers (in states where lottery funds are earmarked for education), and other special interests. This makes it difficult for officials to shift lottery operations in ways that may reduce their revenues or address concerns about gambling and the poor.