The History of the Lottery

While it may seem like a modern phenomenon of Instagram and the Kardashians, lottery is an ancient game that can offer lightning-strike fame and fortune. In fact, the game has a long history and is still used in many states to help raise money for projects and programs that cannot be financed by taxes alone.

The term “lottery” comes from the Old English word loterie, which meant “drawing of lots” or “action of casting lots.” The act of drawing or casting lots is often seen as a method of decision-making or divination. In the early days of American colonization, for example, lotteries played a major role in financing private and public ventures—including building roads, canals, wharves, and colleges (the founding of Harvard and Yale were partially funded by lotteries).

When state governments began to adopt lotteries, they often promoted them as sources of “painless” revenue, since players voluntarily spend their money to help their communities. The theory is that this money, combined with other sources of revenue, can replace or reduce the need for onerous taxes on middle-class and working families.

Until the 1970s, most lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing a ticket for a drawing at some future date. But innovations in the game have dramatically changed how lotteries function, with games such as scratch-off tickets offering smaller prizes and much shorter odds of winning. The resulting dynamic is an example of how public policy often evolves piecemeal and incrementally, with the overall welfare often taking a back seat to the pursuit of short-term revenue and political gain.