The freedom to lose money

An Economic and Social History of Gambling in Britain and the USA

October 25, 1996

In 1905, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree famously described gambling as a national evil, and the moral tone of Edwardian antigambling legislation reflected that viewpoint. It is now, however, an officially encouraged national pastime. Millions of people in both Britain and the United States appear to be dazzled by the spectacle and payout of their lotteries. Despite the ostensible threat from those lotteries, betting on horses, dogs and other sports has persisted. New casinos are prospering, and opportunities for gaming flash from slot machines in pubs and bars and, in Nevada, in public lavatories. It is almost impossible to open a newspaper, a tin of cat food, a packet of crisps, without being told that you might win a fortune, only to find that you have not. In the face of all this, the antigambling lobby is at a low ebb. Postwar prosperity and the growth of discretionary purchasing power eroded the paternalistic or puritanical view that gambling automatically led to impoverishment. Since 1945 the majority of people have increasingly been able to afford to bet or game - in moderation of course. As Munting argues, the freedom to lose money is now accepted in most ideological environments.

It was not ever thus. During the 19th and early 20th centuries both Britain and the US witnessed the growth of increasing opportunities for gambling, but in tandem with powerful movements for prohibition. In Britain off-the-course cash betting was made illegal in 1853, and that Victorian legacy persisted until 1961. In the US, it was similarly legislated against. Yet prohibition did not work because an underground market thrived. Violence in this criminalised subculture was not unknown.

The shortcomings and contradictions of the law, in both countries, were among many irresistible pressures for liberalisation. Moreover, governments became increasingly aware of the possibilities involved in the taxation of mass gambling.

These are some of the major themes which Munting explores in this fascinating comparative history. His general approach is to draw out the similarities and differences between the gambling cultures of both countries. For example, the growth of state lotteries in America, and the introduction of the British national lottery, emphasises their common heritage of official opprobrium followed by policy shifts which actively encouraged lotteries for their revenue-raising potential. The development of football and sports pools is examined, and the changing historical relationship between government, business and gambling is discussed with clarity and brevity. So too are the reasons for the varying levels of participation in specific forms of gambling, whether between men and women, occupational classes, age cohorts, or ethnic groups. For instance, with the exception of bingo, men continue to gamble much more than women, despite the introduction of the national lottery.

The scope of the book is moulded by the awesome scale and complexity of the cultures of gambling in both countries. Hence the two initial survey chapters, tracing the history of gambling from the very dawn of human leisure activities to the present day, are dispatched at breakneck speed in fewer than 50 pages. Furthermore, as Munting admits, Britain gains greater attention than the US.

These are small misgivings, however. This is a highly readable account of an extremely diverse subject. Munting has provided a well-informed and balanced historical perspective on some of the key issues and problems of contemporary gambling.

Mark Clapson is senior lecturer in social history, University of Luton.

An Economic and Social History of Gambling in Britain and the USA

Author - Roger Munting
ISBN - 0 7190 4449 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 252

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