History of the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by chance. It has many different forms, including those that award money, property, and services to participants who pay a small amount for the privilege of participating. The most common form of lottery is a state or national financial lottery, where the winners are selected through a random drawing. Other lotteries allocate non-monetary prizes, such as units in subsidized housing blocks or kindergarten placements. The history of the lottery reflects changing attitudes about the value of money and the ability to provide it for others.

A modern state-run lottery typically involves a centralized bureau that collects and processes applications and issues tickets to the public. The bureau tries to keep the process fair by requiring applicants to submit identification, limiting ticket sales to residents of the state, and avoiding advertising that may bias the results. The bureau also attempts to ensure that the number of tickets sold does not exceed the maximum permitted by law. Historically, lottery organizers have sought to increase their profits by offering increasingly large prizes and adding new games. These tactics often have the effect of increasing public demand for tickets.

The word “lottery” has its roots in a Middle Dutch term that is believed to have come from the root of Latin lotire, meaning “to draw lots”. The first European state-sponsored lotteries were established in Burgundy and Flanders in the 15th century with towns trying to raise funds for fortifications and poor relief. During this period, Francis I of France discovered the potential of lottery prizes in Italy and attempted to establish public lotteries in his kingdom.

By contrast, private commercial lotteries often involve paying a consideration to have a chance of winning a prize. These types of lotteries have been used to allocate military conscription spots, commercial promotions in which property is given away through a lottery-like procedure, and the selection of jury members. In the strictest sense, these commercial lotteries are not considered to be true lottery games because payment of a consideration is required.

During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin promoted a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the lottery should be simple so that “Everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for a considerable chance of gain.” Lotteries became popular after the Revolutionary War, with the Continental Congress and licensed promoters using them as a source of painless revenue. The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little general overview or control. As a result, the ebb and flow of lottery revenues have become a source of friction between voters who want states to spend more and politicians who see the lotteries as an easy way to get tax money without raising taxes.