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The history behind lotteries, and why they exist

Posted at 3:51 PM, Dec 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 18:41:41-05

A lucky person in California won a $2 billion lottery prize in November.

The Powerball jackpot was the largest in history.

Maybe you waited in line and tested your luck and dreamt of what you would do with all that money.

But, what's the history of the lottery?

A play of chance, the chance to dream.

"I would like to be a billionaire. I want to win that lottery in there," said Sally Tanner, a Powerball ticket hopeful.

"If I win, I'll probably take a vacation," said Charles Williams, a Powerball ticket buyer.

"Maybe buy a couple of nice cars, take a nice vacation. And then probably set all my friends and family up for the rest of their lives," said Scott Henyan, a New York resident.

But the lottery is about more than fantasies of egregious wealth.

SEE MORE: What Should You Do If You Win The Powerball Lottery?

So, why do we have it?

"Lotteries are extremely old mechanisms of raising money for government that date back as early as the 15th century," said Jonathan Cohen.

Cohen is the author of "For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America." He says the precise origins of the lottery are unknown.

"It's tough because the evidence is sort of mixed. There's some evidence I'm not really convinced of it, that like a lottery was used to fund the construction of the Great Wall of China," said Cohen.

Other records suggest Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus used a lottery to help fund city repairs.

A lottery was played in parts of Europe in the 1400s.

There's a record from 1445 of a Dutch town using a lottery to raise funds to build a wall around the city.

In fact, the word lottery comes from the Dutch word "lot" which means fate.

Eventually the lottery made its way to the U.S.

"A lottery was used to fund the British colonization of Jamestown. And then in the early American Republic, in the colonial period, it was used to fund infrastructure projects, including the construction of churches and dormitories for such notable universities as Harvard, Princeton and Yale," said Cohen.

Cohen says lotteries back then looked different.

They more closely resembled raffles, and tickets could be pricey; so sometimes people bought just a share of a ticket.

But not everyone was on board with this form of gambling.

"During the second great awakening there, there is a bit of a moral backlash in the 1820s, 1830 states outlaw them that after the Civil War, actually they come back very briefly. But then by the 1880s, 1890, there's only one state lottery left in the country," said Cohen.

SEE MORE: What Should You Do If You Win The Mega Millions Jackpot?

That was the notoriously corrupt Louisiana state lottery.

Officials bribed state lawmakers and agents to sell tickets across America.

It was depicted at the time as an octopus, spreading its evil throughout the country.

But in 1890 congress banned interstate lottery ticket sales, effectively shutting down the last legal lottery in the U.S.

Because of this, Americans soured on lotteries for decades until 1964, when New Hampshire started a state-wide lottery.

"That was the New Hampshire sweepstakes, it was called. And it was absolutely insane compared to what we have for modern lotteries," said Cohen.

Initially, a horserace determined the winning ticket numbers.

New Hampshire tried its luck at the lotto to bring in funds to supplement its low state taxes.

Its success sparked other states to follow.

In 1974, Massachusetts introduced scratch-off tickets, and four years later the roll-over jackpot was born, producing massive winning pots.

National games like Powerball and Mega Millions meant even larger possible winnings, and Americans continue to test their luck.

Lotteries are legal in 45 states, and about half of Americans say they play the lottery, according to a 2016 survey from Gallup.

In 2021, Americans spent over $100 billion on lottery games.

"It's more than they spend on books, sports tickets, video games, music and movie tickets combined," said Cohen.

The odds of winning are astronomically slim.

Lottery officials say you have a 1 in 292.2 million shot of winning the Powerball jackpot.

That means it's more likely you get struck by lightning, die from a shark attack, or get a hole-in-one in golf — twice in the same round — than you are to win the lottery.

But that doesn't keep people from lining up for a shot.

"What keeps people playing the lottery is that it is a form of pursuit of the American dream. Even losing tickets provide value to lottery players because they provide the chance for a few minutes, for a few days, for a few hours to dream of a new life," said Cohen.

And you can't dream unless you play.

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