The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners. The odds of winning vary by the type of lottery and its rules, but most require purchasing a ticket to participate. The prize money may be cash, goods, services, or even land. Some lotteries are government-sponsored, while others are privately run. The earliest recorded lotteries took place in the Low Countries during the 15th century, when towns used them to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

In early America, lotteries were also tangled up with the slave trade in unexpected ways. George Washington managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, purchased his freedom in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion. In later times, though, lottery play was mainly confined to white middle-class citizens. In fact, one study found that high-school educated males in the middle of the economic spectrum were more likely to be “frequent players” than any other demographic group.

Despite this widespread acceptance of the lottery, there were still those who objected to it. During the nineteen-sixties, for example, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery industry collided with a crisis in state funding. With populations increasing and inflation rising, states struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting popular services. Many people began to believe that the lottery was a hidden tax, and public support for it diminished.

To make up for this, advocates of the lottery began to shift tactics. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they now claimed that it would pay for a single line item–usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks. This approach made it easier to sell the idea to a tax-averse electorate.

As the popularity of the lottery grew, its odds of winning decreased. The New York lottery, for instance, began with one-in-three-million odds; today they’re about one in forty-five million. As the likelihood of winning a prize declined, more people bought tickets, which led to an inverse relationship between the number of tickets sold and the chance of winning.

Jackson’s story uses the lottery to criticize the hypocrisy of ordinary villagers. It’s not enough to be willing to take advantage of others; society should be able to stand up against injustice, she suggests. Moreover, she shows that small-town life is not always as peaceful and innocent as it seems. In this regard, the lottery in her story is a symbol of humankind’s evil nature and hypocrisy. It’s the same kind of hypocrisy that enables us to justify the actions of a dictator, for example. It’s important to recognize these kinds of hypocrisies, and to question the values we ascribe to. Otherwise, we will never be able to change the world. For more information about Shirley Jackson, read this article.