The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular method of raising money for public goods and services. It has a long history, beginning with the casting of lots to decide matters of fate and fortune in biblical times. Various types of lotteries have been used in modern society, including those that dish out cash prizes to paying participants. These are often called financial lotteries. Other lotteries are specialized in specific types of goods or services, such as kindergarten admission at a reputable school, units in a subsidized housing block, or vaccines against fast-moving diseases.

The word “lottery” is derived from the Middle Dutch word lot, meaning “fate.” The first publicly sponsored lotteries were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century. Initially, towns sold tickets to raise money for town fortifications and aid the poor. These early lotteries may have influenced the later English state lotteries of the 17th and 18th centuries. Lottery revenue was also crucial in financing the establishment of America’s first English colonies.

In modern times, most state-sponsored lotteries operate in a similar way. The government legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its portfolio.

Most modern lotteries offer a variety of games that allow players to select groups of numbers, or have machines randomly split the selected group, and win prizes if enough of the winning numbers are matched. The selection process can be sped up by using “instant” games, wherein the player marks a box or section on the playslip to accept whatever set of numbers is randomly picked for him.

Regardless of their relative merits, all lotteries have their critics. These range from skeptics and moralists to those concerned with the social costs of compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. Nonetheless, these criticisms are rarely successful in influencing state policy.

Despite the many criticisms, lottery remains a popular form of gambling. In fact, in the United States, a majority of adults report playing at least once a year. The majority of lottery revenues are spent on the state-run game, while some are earmarked for education or other public purposes. In addition, lottery games are a major source of funds for religious congregations. In France, lottery revenue helped finance about 15 churches in the 18th century, including Saint Sulpice and Le Pantheon.