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History of the Lottery

The lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by chance to individuals or groups. Often the prizes are money or property. Some lotteries have been organized by governments to raise funds for a variety of purposes, such as public works projects or military conscription. Others have been run as gambling devices, with participants paying a small sum for the chance of winning a large prize. Some people are compulsive gamblers and do not stop playing even when their losses become large. The lottery has also been criticized for its regressive impact on poorer communities, and it has been banned in many places.

Jackson’s story “The Lottery” examines the blind following of outdated traditions that can be harmful to a society. It also highlights the role of scapegoats—individuals that a community uses to mark its boundaries by persecuting them for their differences. Throughout history, patriarchal societies have used lotteries to vilify women and ethnic minorities.

Lottery first appeared in Europe during the Roman Empire as a form of entertainment at dinner parties, with ticket holders being assured that they would win a prize. During colonial America, private lotteries raised money for public works and paved streets. In 1776 the Continental Congress voted to organize a lottery to finance the American Revolution. Government-sponsored lotteries became a popular way to raise money for various state and local government needs, including building schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia). By the 1960s, 45 states had established lottery systems.