Over 20 years ago a co-worker and I joined a charter tour to the country of Romania. The tour covered a lot of churches, as well a temple and a mosque, Castle Bran (the model for Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel) and other historical points of interest.
In one of the larger churches, I saw this old woman repeatedly cleaning the glass-fronted coffin of some ancient saint. I pondered what she was praying for. My friend said she was just wishing for her numbers to come in.
Although gaming has been around forever—Moses supposedly won land in a lottery and lottery money was used to build the Great Wall of China (winningthenumbers.com/lottery/history) the modern idea of buying a chance on a number to be revealed later didn’t come into being until the Catholic Church used lotteries to (supposedly) help the poor and build new churches (Peter Tompkins THE LOVE OF OBELISKS). It’s also speculated that Giordano Bruno didn’t get into trouble with the church because he speculated on the existence of other stars and planets, but because he might have cracked the code by which the Church came up with its winning numbers (Frances Yates, THE ART OF MEMORY).
State sponsored lotteries seemed to have begun in Florence, Italy (winningthenumbers.com) in 1530. After that, other towns and cities used lotteries to build better roads and public buildings or to get out of debt. King James I used a lottery to finance the founding of Jamestown Colony in what is now the U.S.A.
The founding fathers used lotteries. Ben Franklin built cannons for the Revolution with lottery money. George Washington used lottery funds to build roads to the West. Thomas Jefferson set up a lottery just to get out of debt.
Lotteries became increasingly popular until officials found that most of them were not giving out the prizes that were supposed to have been won. State by state, lotteries became illegal until the Supreme Court prohibited all gambling in 1905.
Lotteries did not return to the US until after legislators saw how well Canada was doing with its lotteries. The first one was in New Jersey in 1973 and New York State lotteries quickly followed.
As a side note, the legal lotteries were blamed for killing off the “numbers rackets” or private lotteries that were carried out in New York City and its boroughs. People I knew at the time, said that the numbers people really cared what was going on in the neighborhoods and that some family that was down and out would always get help. They also said that the chance of winning on the numbers games was always higher than on the state lotteries. But the ease of buying tickets at any number of vendors, rather than knowing somebody who knew somebody, put to death an institution that the police and the FBI had been trying to kill for decades.