History of the Lottery



The practice of dividing property by lot goes back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, Moses is instructed to take a census of Israel and divide the land amongst the people by lot. The Roman emperors used lotteries to distribute property and slaves. It was even a common form of entertainment at dinner parties and was called “apophoreta”, meaning “that which is carried home.”

Many lotteries have joined forces with other businesses and sports franchises to create brand-name promotions. The New Jersey Lottery Commission has recently announced that its motorcycle scratch-off game will include a Harley-Davidson bike as the prize. These brand-name promotions feature celebrities, sports figures, and cartoon characters. The benefits to both parties are merchandising and advertising. Ultimately, the lottery promotes a healthy economy and a healthy community.

The history of the lottery is complex. The first known lotteries used tickets with money prizes. This was common practice in Low-country towns to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Some towns also started lottery-type games in the Middle Ages, though they did not have a universal appeal at that time. A record from 1445, at L’Ecluse, mentions a lottery involving 4,304 tickets that raised florins, which are roughly equal to US$170,000 today.

In colonial America, lottery-style drawings funded roads, colleges, canals, bridges, and libraries. In the 1740s, Princeton and Columbia University were funded through their own lotteries. The University of Pennsylvania used a lottery in 1755. During the French and Indian Wars, several colonies used lotteries to raise money for their own campaigns. In 1758, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts raised funds for its “Expedition against Canada.”