The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbered tickets are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state-wide or national lotteries. A prize, whether cash or goods, is awarded to the holder of a winning ticket.

The first lotteries were held in Europe in the fourteenth century, where they raised money for town fortifications and charity. In England, a lottery was chartered in 1567. Queen Elizabeth I favored them, encouraging their development by offering immunity from arrest for all participants. The game spread throughout the world, reaching America in the seventeenth century. In the new colony, it was tangled up with slavery. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that gave prizes to human beings, and one enslaved man used his win in the South Carolina lottery to foment slave rebellions.

Cohen traces the growth of lottery culture, which he describes as the “spiritual cousin to gambling.” It began with the rise of unimaginable wealth, fueled by jackpots that could reach billions of dollars. This coincided with a decline in financial security for working people. Inflation accelerated, health-care costs rose, job security eroded, and the long-held promise that hard work and education would enable Americans to enjoy life more than their parents had — or at least not be worse off — ceased to be true.

Lotteries were a popular way to escape this despair, Cohen argues. They appealed to people’s desire for great wealth, and they offered a chance to do it without much effort. And as the jackpots grew ever larger, so did their sales.

A key element in a lottery’s success is its ability to generate publicity. Super-sized jackpots, with their potential to change lives in an instant, draw crowds and earn a windfall of free publicity on news sites and TV broadcasts. But these high-profile wins are also a source of public discontent.

To avoid this discontent, some states began to limit the size of their prizes and increase the number of numbers on a ticket, making the odds of winning even higher. This, combined with the popularity of sexy advertising, made lotteries even more attractive to people desperate for easy money. But it has also meant that more and more of the population’s income is being spent on tickets, even though there is still a far greater likelihood of being struck by lightning than of winning the lottery. And that’s a problem.