The first lottery in England took place on the 11th of January, 1569, at the west door of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The scheme, which had been announced two years before, shows that the lottery consisted of forty thousand lots or shares, at ten shillings each, and that it comprehended ‘a great number of good prizes, as well of ready money as of plate, and certain sorts of merchandize.’ The object of any profit that might arise from the scheme was the reparation of harbours and other useful public works.
Today, the lottery is a tried and trusted way of government revenue collection with prizes in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2016 a prize of $1.58 billion was shared among three winners of the Powerball lottery. The biggest single winner’s ticket yielded $1,537 billion.
It is interesting to consider this 19th-century view of the habit: Lotteries, by creating illusive hopes, and supplanting steady industry, wrought immense mischief. Shopmen robbed their masters, servant girls their mistresses, friends borrowed from each other under false pretences, and husbands stinted their wives and children of necessaries—all to raise the means for buying a portion or the whole of a lottery ticket. But, although the humble and ignorant were the chief purchasers, there were many others who ought to have known better. In the interval between the purchase of a ticket and the drawing of the lottery, the speculators were in a state of unhealthy excitement. On one occasion a fraudulent dealer managed to sell the same ticket to two persons; it came up a five hundred pound prize; and one of the two went raving mad when he found that the real ticket was, after all, not held by him.