It is possible that the history of the lottery goes back as far as times of Moses. There is some contention among Biblical scholars about this. Certainly, it would not be all that seemly if a great religious character should profit from gambling. But in the Book of Numbers of the Old Testament it is written that Moses was awarded land near the River Jordan after playing a local lottery. No wonder so many people today still pray before picking their numbers.
Lotteries are not mentioned in historical writings much until 200 BC in China, when the Hun Dynasty used lotteries to raise funds for taxes. In 200 BC Emperor Cheung Leung invented The Chinese Lottery. Today this game has survived as what we know as Keno. Revenue from the Chinese Lottery was used to build the Great Wall of China. It is also thought that playing the lottery in Europe may date back as far as the times of Julius Caesar, in the first century before Christ.
It is likely that forms of lotteries and raffles existed in the intervening ages, but very little was written about the subject. The first recorded lottery in Europe was actually a raffle held by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck in 1446. He gave away his paintings as prizes. In 1465, lotteries were regularly held in Belgium to raise money to build houses for the poor, chapels and canal systems.
This way of raising funds did not have a name until 1515, when an election gone wrong in Genoa, Italy used numbers instead of names on its ballots. This left the choosing of the official up to fate. The word lottery in Italian actually means a predestination or unchangeable fate.
Fifteen years later, the Italian city of Florence held a “Number Lottery” and gave away cash prizes. The idea soon caught on in France, too. In 1539 King Francis I of France ran a lottery to get his kingdom’s treasury out of debt.
In 1567, Queen Elizabeth I established the first English lottery, when she offered 400,000 tickets for sale. Prizes included china, tapestries and cash. The first London lottery is credited to King James I in England in 1612. The money from this game of chance was used to fund the building of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, which was the first English colony in America.
Lotteries were also used to fund culture. In 1753, a lottery was held to help build the British museum. In the same year, Casanova urged Louis XV to found the Loterie Royale, which later became the famed Loterie National. This lottery was a keno style game that gave players the option of betting on one to five numbers between 1 and 90.
The Lottery Comes to America
After American colonial times in the 1700’s, the lottery was a favorite past time, especially of America’s founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin financed cannons for the Revolutionary war using lottery money. George Washington operated a Virginia lottery to finance construction of roads to the west. A debt-ridden Thomas Jefferson once held a lottery to dispose of his property and find some badly needed cash.
Of course, all of these lotteries are now defunct. Amazingly, the Netherlands Lottery, which was founded in 1726, is still in operation today. It is officially the oldest lottery in the world.
Lotteries really took off in the United States after the adoption of the constitution and used to fund over 300 schools and 200 churches. The lottery helped found universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The game was used to fund civic improvements, including orphanages, libraries, hospitals, jails and courthouses. This trend began to lose momentum in 1820, when corruption began to plague privately owned lotteries, which often advertised big jackpots and then awarded no prizes at all.
After 1820, a civic battle began in North America to ban public lotteries. Church-led organizations often led the fight for social reforms.The lottery was on a list of hot button issues, along with the prohibition of alcohol, the abolition of slavery and workers rights. Through the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, anti-lottery reformers sought to ban the lottery. This became an issue through most states and provinces in the United States and Canada.
In 1819, the Province of Quebec made lotteries illegal. This was followed by the state of New York in 1820. By 1856, all lotteries were banned in Canada. This was followed by a ban of lottery materials by mail in 1890 in the United States. In 1905, The U.S. Supreme court prohibited all gambling, ending the successful century old reign of the Louisiana Lottery.
Twentieth Century Lotteries
The new century brought a revival of the lottery, beginning with the Queensland State Lottery of Australia in 1917. The establishment of the Irish Sweepstakes in 1930 followed this.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the United States would see a lottery again. Gambling was legalized in 1969 in Canada, giving provinces the permission to operate lotteries and casinos that gave the proceeds to charitable or religious causes. Manitoba and Quebec pioneered the first modern Canadian lotteries. This was quickly followed by a legal state lottery south of the border in New Jersey where tickets costs 50 cents for a weekly drawing. In it’s first year, New Jersey sold $73 million in tickets.
In 1973, The Olympic Lottery Corporation of Canada used the lottery to begin funding the 1976 Olympics that were to be held in Montreal. That year, the popularity of today’s lotteries was sealed as the sales for all lotteries in North America surpassed $500 million. 1973 was also a landmark year for the lottery, as technology brought the game into the modern age. The first secure instant ticket was developed by a company called Scientific Games.
Soon after this success, other laws followed that made playing the lottery more accessible to North Americans. This included the incorporation of countless private, state wide, federal and (in Canada) province run lotteries. This included amendments to allow state lotteries to once again advertise through the mail as well as on billboards, radio and television. By 1999, more than 100 foreign lotteries were in operation. To this day, the biggest lottery win in history has been $363 million, shared by two winners of a Big Game drawing.