Lottery fund raising is a Maryland tradition Exhibit shows 18th, 19th century tickets

JACQUE KELLY

July 30, 1993|By JACQUE KELLY

A line of people forming to buy lottery tickets is nothing new in Maryland.

The tradition of putting down a few dollars in hopes of walking away with a bankroll has been around as long as Maryland.

A new exhibition at the library of the Maryland Historical Society shows how lottery tickets were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to finance higher education, pave roads and build churches.

Many neighboring states frowned on Maryland's penchant for gambling, but that never stopped people in these parts from trying to get on Dame Fortune's good side.

"Other states were more puritanical. They raised the same objections to lotteries as the ones heard today -- the people least able to afford them play the hardest," said Denwood Kelly, a volunteer at the society who has long specialized in early bank notes, numismatic items and lottery tickets.

Kelly and fellow volunteer Armand Shank selected several dozen pre-1840 lottery tickets from the society's collection for a small exhibit that opened this week.

"I wanted to show the variety of projects that lotteries were used for. It was not just the state treasury . . . prominent Marylanders often lent their names to lottery enterprises to lend credibility. All you had to do to hold a lottery is get permission from the legislature," Kelly said.

One of the earliest lottery tickets in the collection is on a piece of hand-made rag paper for Chestertown's Washington College. It was sold in 1784.

There are lottery tickets to raise funds for the University of Maryland's School of Medicine; the Patapsco Female Institute, a girl's school that once stood in Ellicott City; St. Anne's Episcopal Church on Church Circle in Annapolis; the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Cathedral and Mulberry streets in Baltimore; the Washington Monument, and Old St. Paul's Church at Charles and Saratoga streets.

A 1790 lottery ticket benefited a fund to pave Howard Street.

When a lottery didn't raise enough money to build, say the Washington Monument or the Cathedral, additional ones were held. The public seemed to like the idea.

If the lottery prize was worth $10,000, the winner would get that amount less 15 percent, which went to the charity or public building. The lottery agent selling the winning ticket also got a small share of the prize.

"Old lottery tickets, especially if they are nicely engraved or have pretty vignettes on them, still sell very well at bank note auctions today. The rare ones bring $200 to $300; the more common, $100 to $200," Kelly said.

Many of the lottery agencies that flourished in downtown Baltimore in the 1820s also doubled as currency exchanges where people went to break dollar notes.

"In times of economic crisis, silver, gold and an awful lot of copper just disappeared for periods of time. Out of sheer necessity, people resorted to scrip, or paper notes, in small denominations issued by private firms," Kelly said.

The scrip, though not illegal, was not accepted as payment of public taxes or public debt.

"It generally was not cashed in until someone had $5 in scrip. That was a good bit of money and it probably accounts for the fact there is a certain amount of the scrip that has survived today. People who had $3.75 in scrip held on to it, hoping they'd make the $5 and they never did," Kelly said.

"People called them shinplaster shops because the scrip they issued were pieces of paper about as large as a mustard plaster or poultice you might put on your sore shin," Kelly said.

From the files of the Historical Society, he located a February 1823 handbill for Conine's lottery office at 32 Market (today Baltimore) St., near the bustling Marsh Market, the area today known as Market Place.

The gaming firm's proprietors had handbills distributed around Baltimore bearing this poem:

"Hark! hear you not Dame Fortune call,

"To bid you to her shrine,

"And beg you to purchase, one and all,

"A ticket from Conine."

Kelly said most lotteries in Maryland died out before the Civil War and were not brought back until the 1970s. "I would think the state replaced the lottery as a source of income with more sophisticated taxation," he said.

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