The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a billion-dollar industry that gives millions of people hope and a chance to improve their lives. For many, it’s the only way they can afford to pay their bills and have a roof over their heads. While some people use it as a form of gambling, others believe they’re doing their civic duty by playing the lottery and helping their community. While winning the lottery can be a big win, there are some things you should know before buying a ticket.

The word “lottery” dates to the Middle Dutch phrase loterie, which may be a calque on the Middle French word loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” The lottery has long been used as a public service: Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery in 1748 to help establish a militia for defense against marauding French troops, John Hancock ran one in 1767 to raise money for Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington ran a lottery in Virginia to fund a road over a mountain pass. Privately organized lotteries were also common in England and the colonies, as a means to sell products or properties at higher prices than could be obtained through regular sales.

By the nineteenth century, public lotteries were widespread, and they helped fund everything from building the British Museum to repairing bridges. Private lotteries exploded, too: the New York Times reported in 1832 that there were some 420 of them in operation.

Lottery has always been controversial, and its critics have charged that it’s a morally dubious business. But in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues, the popularity of the lottery began to clash with a problem in state budgets: rising populations, inflation, and the cost of fighting the Vietnam War made it difficult for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services—and either option would have been extremely unpopular with voters.

In response, a few states approved lotteries of their own. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections, these supporters argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well take the profits. The logic was flawed, but it gave political cover to those who approved of the lottery, including many white voters who worried that legalization would entice black lottery players to move into their suburbs and force them to pay for the services they didn’t want to pay for themselves.

In the meantime, savvy lottery players are finding ways to optimize their chances of winning. For example, many play the numbers that correspond to their birthdays and anniversaries. But that strategy can also reduce the odds of splitting a prize, so it’s not a foolproof approach to winning. More serious lottery players often develop their own systems, such as selecting “lucky” numbers that haven’t won recently. Others rely on the work of mathematicians who study historical patterns and statistical analysis. And some use a computer program that helps them select the best numbers by analyzing past winners and comparing them with other lottery data.

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