The History of the Official Lottery

As state lotteries continue to boom, with Americans spending an estimated $100 billion each year on tickets, it’s easy to forget that they’ve had a rocky history. In fact, the modern lottery was only brought to America in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of the profits to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with exploding population growth, inflation, and the costs of the Vietnam War, many states struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both unpopular with voters.

Until then, many states relied on lotteries to raise money for everything from public works projects like roads and schools to social welfare programs. The first recorded lotteries were run in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. They may even be older: a record from 1445 in the city of Ghent refers to a drawing of lots for building walls and other town fortifications, with prizes ranging from food to pigs to clothing.

By the 1700s, Massachusetts’ Benjamin Franklin was running a state lottery to help fund Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington was holding a lottery to pay for a road over a mountain pass in Virginia. But by the 1800s, the moral and religious sensibilities that would lead to prohibition began turning against gambling in all its forms. Corruption also played a role, with lottery organizers sometimes taking the prize funds and absconding.