In the United States, state lotteries are thriving. Americans spend an estimated $100 billion each year on tickets. But it wasn’t always so, and lottery opponents still argue that gambling should not be used to fund public services.

The first recorded lotteries took place in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where towns used them to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. Eventually, the practice spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567. Tickets cost ten shillings, which was a considerable sum in those days. The prizes were goods and cash, and the lottery also served as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for convicted felons.

Despite devout Protestants’ disapproval of government-sanctioned gambling, colonial America adopted lotteries enthusiastically, and they became a critical source of funds for everything from roads and canals to churches, colleges, and the construction of Harvard and Yale. Lotteries even helped finance the Revolutionary War.

But the moral and religious sensibilities that would lead to prohibition began to turn against gambling in all forms around 1800, says Matheson. Corruption was another factor, as lottery organizers sometimes skimmed the proceeds.

In the early nineteenth century, some state legislators sought to limit the size of the prize, but the trend toward bigger prizes and higher jackpots accelerated as states struggled to balance their budgets. By the twentieth century, lottery revenue had grown to about five per cent of each state’s education budget. Advocates of legalization no longer argued that the lottery would float all of a state’s budget; instead, they urged that it cover one line item in particular, usually education but also veterans’ benefits or elder care.