The History of the Lottery


The casting of lots for determining fates and possessions has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. However, the lottery as a means to distribute prizes of money is rather more recent. The first known public lottery was organized during the reign of Augustus Caesar to raise funds for municipal repairs in Rome. Private lotteries were common in the early colonies and helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William & Mary, Union and Brown colleges.

Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a classic of modern literature and a disturbing look at the nature of human greed and depravity. It takes place in a rural American village where traditions and customs dominate the lives of the villagers. One of these traditions is a lottery in which slips of paper, each bearing the name of a large family, are put into a black box. The shabby black box symbolizes both the tradition and the illogic of the villagers’ loyalty to it.

When it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, the story generated more letters to the editor than any other piece of fiction that the magazine had ever published. Readers were furious, disgusted and often bewildered. Those reactions can be partially explained by the fact that, at the time, many Americans were still reeling from World War II and still recovering from the horrors that had been perpetrated on civilians by Nazi Germany.

Lotteries, like the one depicted in the story, can be dangerous to individuals and societies because of the way that they suck people into addiction. They also exacerbate inequality in society by dangling the promise of wealth to people who do not need it and cannot afford to gamble on a chance to win. In the United States, a state-run lottery is now established in 37 of its 50 states and Washington D.C. While lottery critics have pointed to its regressive nature, the state governments that operate lotteries argue that its popularity is tied to its ability to raise substantial sums of money to support specific public needs.

The state governments that have adopted lotteries argue that the proceeds from the games can be used for a variety of purposes, including education. In general, lotteries gain broad popular approval and are able to sustain their popularity even when the objective fiscal circumstances of the state government are poor. Moreover, the introduction of a state lottery tends to create extensive and specialized constituencies: convenience store operators; lottery suppliers; teachers (in those states that earmark the lottery’s proceeds for their schools); and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue that comes from the lotteries. These groups are all consolidated by the lottery’s message: winning is possible, and the prize is big enough to change your life. This is the message that lottery marketers rely on to convince people to buy tickets. They also use a more subtle but equally important message: the lottery is fun, and the experience of scratching off a ticket is gratifying.