J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

The Brazen Head and a Bridge in Newbury

An item one could buy at the Sign of the Brazen Head in 1759, but which Mary Jackson didn’t list in her advertising, was a lottery ticket.

We know that from an ad that appeared in the Boston Evening-Post on 30 April:
The Drawing of Newbury Lottery
(the Second Part) will punctually commence at the Town-House in Newbury, on Thursday the last Day of May next, there being a Subscription for the Tickets then unsold, if any there shall be.———

[pointing hand] Tickets to be had of Ebenezer Storer, Esq; Messrs. Timothy Newell, William Jackson and James Jackson, in Boston; Capt. Bowen and Mr. Chipman in Marblehead; Mr. Pyncheon in Salem; Mr. Symonds in Danvers; Daniel Gibbs, Esq; and Mr. Daniel Sargent in Gloucester; Major Epes, Capt. Staniford, and Mr. William Dodge in Ipswich; James M’Hard Esq; and Mr. Joseph Badger in Haverhill, and of the Managers in Newbury.

Note, But two Blanks to a Prize.
What was all that about? The town of Newbury wanted to build a bridge over the Parker River to replace a ferry that had operated for over a century. In fact, the town had wanted to build such a bridge since 1734, according to John J. Currier’s “Ould Newbury” (1896). In that year the town meeting had voted to approve such a bridge on certain conditions:
  • It had to be wide enough for coaches.
  • Its main arch had to be tall and wide enough for boats laden with hay to pass through.
  • It wouldn’t cost the town of Newbury anything.
  • It would be free to use.
  • It had to be built within ten years.
It may not be surprising that no one undertook to fulfill all those conditions.

But the idea remained. In 1750 the Newbury town meeting and the Massachusetts General Court again approved of the idea of building a bridge. The legislature was involved because this time the planners proposed financing the bridge with a lottery, and the law needed provincial approval. The development team received authority to raise £1,200 that way.

In 1758 Ralph Cross finished building the bridge. It was 26 feet wide, 870 feet long, and had eight wooden arches. That structure no longer exists, but the present Parker River Bridge, built mainly in 1853 with stone arches, stands at the same spot.

Even after the bridge opened, however, the men behind it were still raising money. In fact, in April 1760 the legislature authorized a second lottery, and in February 1763 a third, to finish paying for the bridge and then to pay for its maintenance. Ads in the Boston newspapers for lottery tickets continued to direct customers who felt lucky to William and James Jackson, especially William.

When managers announced such lotteries, they had to be open about the terms. For example, the 1760 Newbury lottery stated that there were 5,000 tickets costing $2 apiece. One ticket would win $500, four would win $100, five $50, six $40, ten $30, fourteen $20, forty-five $10, seventy-five $8, and 1,495 tickets $4. The remaining 3,345 tickets were “blanks,” meaning their holders won nothing.

In all, just under one-third of all the tickets in the Newbury Lottery gave back more than a ticket-buyer had invested. That’s what the ad above meant by “Note, But two Blanks to a Prize.”

The goal of the 1760 lottery was to bring in $10,000. Of that sum, $9,000 was earmarked for prizes and the rest for the bridge. But raising a full £1,000 meant selling through the whole run of tickets, and that was a challenge. The 1759 drawing advertised above depended on some people promising “a Subscription for the Tickets then unsold.” As of March 1761 there were still unsold tickets for the second lottery, and the Newbury town meeting was asked what the town should do about it.

Today’s state lotteries operate under different rules, but one thing hasn’t changed: the expectation value of a ticket is still less than its price.

TOMORROW: Technical info.

[Above: A 1765 ticket from the long-running Faneuil Hall lottery signed by one of the managers, John Hancock.]

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