The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular gambling game in which a prize, usually money, is offered for a chance to win. It is distinguished from other forms of gambling in that a consideration, such as a work or property, must be submitted for the chance to receive the prize. Modern examples of the lottery include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters.

Originally the term “lottery” referred to an official drawing of numbers in order to determine the winner of a public prize, such as land or other goods. The first state-sponsored lotteries took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, and a drawing of lots was part of the settling of disputes in the city of Paris in 1636. The word was probably borrowed from Middle Dutch lotterie, or perhaps through a French calque on Middle Dutch lotinge.

In colonial America, lotteries were a common means of raising funds for public projects such as roads, canals, libraries, churches, colleges, and schools. The lottery was also used to select recipients of government pensions and to distribute public works contracts such as canals and bridges.

The events depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story suggest that the lottery reveals humankind’s hypocrisy and evil nature. Despite the fact that the people in the story greeted each other and exchanged bits of gossip, they manhandled each other without a flinch of sympathy.