The Growth of Gambling's Acceptability

In the last half of the 18th century, only a tiny fraction of the population, perhaps as low as ten percent, gambled at all, whether religious or not. Gambling was regarded as not respectable and was conducted by those on the fringe of society.

After the turn of the century, however, change came rapidly. In the cities, the numbers game replaced the lottery, usually run on the sly at cigar and news stands. Some small merchants also participated to enhance their income, for the numbers games frequently paid out only on the number the fewest picked. There was a similar rise in illegal poker games, which created the image of the well-heeled, polished professional gambler. The reality was often sleazy, for the venue was the riverboat, the backstreet hotel, although poker games were also conducted in private clubs for higher stakes. The alliance with alcohol and prostitution was formed.

The more well-to-do gambled at the few tracks that were scattered around the country, most prominently in Kentucky and New York. Only a fragment of the population gambled on the horses until communications were organized by the Mob in the thirties to provide more sure information to the bookies. In the first half of the 19th century many people played a wide variety of games, and more often than not, gambling was not part of the fun. For the first two-thirds of the 19th century, gambling was widely disapproved as an immoral activity that caused one to associate with bad characters, frequently from the underworld. Gambling was assumed to have the potential to lead to dissolute character.

During this time the primary arguments of the Protestant leaders were that gambling was an attempt to take the goods that belonged to someone else without working for them or giving something in return. It was viewed as a form of theft, only slightly less repulsive because the element of consent was present. The ministers also pointed to the element of greed present in gambling, a vice clearly condemned in a variety of Old and New Testament passages. The operators of gambling games were regarded as reprehensible for preying upon the innocent. None of these factors has actually gone away, but the attitude toward their validity has changed.

During World War II a major attitudinal change took place. With so many men in uniform with so much time on their hands, gambling became a common form of recreation. There were sharps who abused and accumulated others' money, but mostly the bets were small and the time passed more agreeably. A larger portion of the population, numbering many millions, developed a more ambivalent attitude toward gambling. The nature of gambling as an escape was especially appealing during the stress of war when any moment could be your last. The stress could be controlled in the artificial world of cards and dice. Even more important for the developing of the gambling habit, and the production of pathological gamblers, was that in the service you did not go unfed, or unclothed, or unsheltered or untransported, even if you did lose all your money. Insulated from the consequences of gambling, the military personnel were able to perceive the recreational aspects without recognizing the dangers in a less controlled environment. In the military, while some mobsters were present, the immoral associations were reduced. As a consequence, many adult males learned the thrill or excitement of having an experience heightened by having something at stake, with money riding on it.