What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SCHEME of a LOTTERY … for the Purpose of repairing and rebuilding the Bridge.”
Colonists sometimes used lotteries to fund public works projects in eighteenth-century America. When the “Bridge over Pawtucket River, called Whipple’s Bridge,” fell into disrepair in 1770, Rhode Island’s General Assembly authorized a lottery to raise the funds necessary to repair and build it. The colonial legislature also appointed directors to oversee the lottery. The directors then placed advertisements outlining the “SCHEME of a LOTTERY” in the Providence Gazette. They described the prizes and odds, but they also explained the value of maintaining Whipple’s Bridge. Doing so contributed to “Good of the Public in general,” but “more especially of the Town of Providence, as the Road over said Bridge leads to several large Towns in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay.” In other words, the bridge facilitated commerce and communication between Providence and other towns.
The directors needed to raise four hundred dollars for the project. Rather than a single lottery, they planned to sponsor several, “Four Classes, or Divisions” that would yield one hundred dollars each. The “SCHEME” for the “First Class” specified that the directors would sell “Six Hundred Tickets, at One Dollar each.” Most of this revenue, however, would be paid out in prizes. The lottery consisted of 178 prizes that amounted to five hundred dollars, leaving one hundred dollars to invest in repairing Whipple’s Bridge. The grand prize was thirty dollars with two other prizes of twenty dollars and five prizes of ten dollars. The lottery also included smaller prizes, twenty worth four dollars and 150 worth two dollars. Although most of the prizes were not very large, participants enjoyed good odds for winning some sort of prize, “Near two Blanks to a Prize” or nearly one winning ticket for each two that did not win.
Still, winning was not guaranteed, prompting the directors to underscore the benefits to the general public as one of the reasons to participate in the lottery. They also suggested that the lottery met with “Encouragement already given by the Public to promote this salutary Design,” leading them to believe that all six hundred tickets would soon be sold and then the winning tickets drawn and published in the Providence Gazette. The directors had two purposes in noting the popularity of the lottery. It could incite others to join a cause that others already endorsed while also prompting some colonists to purchase tickets quickly for fear of not having a chance to participate if they waited too long.
In addition to the directors, colonists could also purchase tickets from John Carter, printer of the Providence Gazette. His printing office was not only a hub for disseminating information, but also a site for supporting the maintenance of important elements of the infrastructure that allowed for the movement of people and goods within the colony and beyond. Eighteenth-century printers brokered information, but they also served their communities in other ways.