Lotteries are nothing new. Lottery history dates back thousands of years, and the controversy that often surrounds our modern lottery is mostly absent. In fact, the U.S. may owe her liberation from England in part to money collected through a lottery!
Ancient Lottery History
The earliest known lotteries began in ancient Greece in the 8th Century BC. This “casting of lots” is mentioned by Homer in the classic epic novel The Iliad. Lotteries were also played in 450 BC during what is known as the Celtic Era. There is also evidence that lotto history continued in 205-187 BC during the Han Dynasty in China. It is likely that the Chinese played a game much like our modern Keno. At least part of the funding to build the Great Wall of China might have come from lottery money. The first known instance of the European history of the lottery is during the Roman Empire. The upper classes enjoyed prize-winning lotteries during their dinner parties. Augustus Ceasar probably used lottery winnings to repair infrastructure in Rome.
Lotteries Become Public
The first history of lotto for the masses occurred in 1434 in Sluris, a Dutch town. Winnings in these lotteries were prizes and not cash. Cash winnings for public lotteries began to be common in an area then known as Flanders around 1444. This area is now known as Belgium, Holland and France. Money collected in these lotteries was used to help the poor and to fund the government. Voluntary lotteries were considered far better than mandatory taxes as a means for raising money for public needs.
History of Lotteries in the Colonial Period
King James I, the same man who brought us the King James Bible, approved a lottery in 1744 to help fund the colonies. About 200 lotteries were held from this time until the Revolutionary War. In addition to helping pay for roads, schools, libraries and other public buildings, these lotteries also began the modern trend of using lottery money to fund education.
Americans Adopt the Lottery
Having learned this valuable money-raising tool from the kings they left behind, the colonists used lotteries to raise money to help fight for their freedom, and a few lottery tickets signed by George Washington still exist today. Lotteries also helped fund the French and Indian Wars. Colonists were far less skeptical about buying a lottery ticket than they were about authorizing the government to collect taxes.
Lottery’s Dark Ages
Unfortunately, the hugely popular Louisiana Lottery fell prey to scandals and mismanagement in the late 1800s, causing swift action by Congress. In 1892, Congress banned the U.S. Postal Service from delivering lottery tickets, and shut it down completely in 1900. After World War II, states began fighting their own battles to reinstate lotteries to fund education and other needs without raising taxes. The battle still rages today.
Currently, 43 states in addition to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia have legal lotteries. Lotteries are illegal in 7 states.