The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which participants purchase a ticket, select numbers or a combination of numbers and hope to win a prize. The odds of winning are quite low, but the lottery is widely popular and raises significant revenue for state governments. It is a form of collective decision-making and, like other forms of group betting, is popular among people who don’t want to risk the money they have or might have spent on something else in order to win the big jackpot.

This article examines the historical background of the lottery, how it operates in modern-day societies and reveals some of its dark sides. It also suggests that lotteries have a number of other functions beyond distributing money.

In Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” the villagers gather in the town square for their annual lottery. Children on summer break are the first to assemble, followed by adult women and men, exhibiting the stereotypical normality of small-town life as they warmly gossip and discuss their work.

Once the names have been read, there is a hush in the crowd as family members approach the box and remove a paper slip. There is a general sigh when little Dave’s paper is found to be blank, and Mrs. Delacroix’s is marked with a black spot, making her the obvious scapegoat.

While the casting of lots has a long history in human society, state-sponsored lotteries are considerably more recent, although their popularity has grown rapidly since New Hampshire introduced the modern lottery in 1964. States largely adopted the lottery after World War II to fund government programs without burdening their middle and working classes with excessive taxes, allowing them to expand their social safety nets in relative peace.