Mahjong (often spelled Mah Jong, Mahjongg, and Mah Jongg) is thought to have derived from Chinese card games of the 12th century. The four-person game we know today probably developed in China in the middle of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, Mahjong was a craze in the United States, too. Its popularity continued into the 1950s, waned somewhat in the second half of the 20th century, and surged again in the 1990s after the publication and film version of Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club."

Not surprisingly, the first Mahjong sets in America were imported from China. Some were packed in handsome rosewood boxes with separate drawers for the stones, wind, flowers, and other Mahjong tiles. The best of these boxes were held together with fine joinery and ornate brass hardware and dice, but many sets came packed in hand-painted cardboard boxes. As for the tiles, they were made out of everything from bamboo to bone—wood was fairly common; ivory and jade were more rare.

Because many manufacturers and importers glued their product labels to the insides of the boxes, and because the cardboard boxes tended to wear out, we know less about some of these early sets than we’d like. In fact, today many antique Mahjong sets are sold in the attaché cases that replaced the original cardboard boxes. These cases are frequently lined with velvet, with fake alligator skin or leather on the outside. They look vintage, and they may be quite old, but they are usually not original.

Of the companies that imported Mahjong games into the United States, we do know a few things about Piroxloid Products Corp., whose heyday appears to have been the 1920s. Based in New York, as were many of the other game companies of that era, Piroxloid imported Mahjong sets with most of the characteristics described above, as well as sets with Bakelite tiles and racks.

Butterscotch Bakelite tiles were quite popular, racks were often marbled in deep chocolates and vibrant greens, and dice were made in a color called cherry juice. Some of the most collectible Piroxloid sets include a booklet called "Standard Rules for The Ancient Game Of The Mandarins," which was written by Piroxloid’s in-house Mahjong expert, Hugo Manovill. In fact, there were dozens of books and booklets published during the 1920s explaining the rules of the game to Mahjong-crazed Americans.

Another well-known 1920s U.S. manufacturer of Mahjong sets was Parker Brothers, Inc. Whereas the Piroxloid sets came with a Manovill rulebook, Parker Brothers sets were sold with "Babcock Rules." Parker Brothers sets had model names, from the inexpensive Hong Kong set in a cardboard box to the pricier Newport and Tuxedo sets, the latter of which came in a mahogany box with French Ivory laminated onto teak tiles.

Bakelite had been invented in 1907. Though it was popular, it was hardly the only plastic available to Mahjong manufacturers. Pyralin was an ivory-colored celluloid-based materia...

Then, in 1927, when the Bakelite patent ran out, numerous other companies such as Catalin introduced their own line of Mahjong tiles in an even greater range of colors. Whereas the original Bakelite tiles and racks were opaque and marbled, Catalin tiles had a translucent quality.

Tyl produced Mahjong sets during the 1930s and ’40s. Some of Tyl’s nicest sets had two-tone tiles, with butterscotch Bakelite on top and burgundy Bakelite on the back to match the racks. The betting chips made for sets of this vintage were probably some type of polystyrene, which is why they produced satisfying, metallic clinks when stacked or knocked together.

In the 1940s, Met Games of New York produced many Mahjong sets whose tiles and racks were made out of translucent Catalin. Most of the tile designs produced by Met were used and reused regardless of the model—look for sets that contain a unique tile images such as a parrot. Also collectible are Met tiles that are "enrobed," which means that instead of looking like a sandwich, the tile suggests a piece of sushi.

Finally, E.S. Lowe made very handsome sets in the 1940s and ’50s. Sets were packed in fake-alligator cases and had "Mah-Lowe" joker tiles. Lowe sets are common, particularly the ones made in the 1960s, but a vintage set from prior to that decade in good condition is still considered a catch.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Talking Boards

Museum of Talking Boards

Prepare to enter the strange world of Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board game, which captured imaginations en masse… [read review or visit site]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

Elliot Avedon Games Museum

This in-depth University of Waterloo virtual exhibit showcases vintage games in a variety of categories, from class… [read review or visit site]

Electronic Plastic

Electronic Plastic

From Tomy to Coleco to Mattel and Nintendo, check out this collection of over 660 handheld and tabletop videogames … [read review or visit site]

Pong Story

Pong Story

David Winter's tribute to early video games, and to Ralph H. Baer, 'inventor of the video game.' Offers a detailed … [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Mah Jong Set 148 *bakelite* TilesAntique Vintage Bone Bamboo Hand Carved Mah Jong Game Set 148 Tiles Bams Cracks156 Vtg Bakelite Mahjong Mah Jongg Set Ten Flowers/eastern DistributorsVintage Catalin Mah Jong SetVintage Bakelite Mahjong Mah Jongg Game 166 Tiles 5 Racks Read And See Pics!2 Vintage Estate Bakelite Advertising Eye Glasses Key Chain & Mah Jong Tally 146 Vtg Bakelite Mahjong Mah Jongg Peacocks Met Games Happy Buddah JokersVintage Chinese Mah Jongg Set Four Winds In Wood BoxVintage Butterscotch Bakelite Mah Jongg Set By Cardinal-152 Tiles With New CaseVintage Mahjong Mah Jong Set 164 Bakelite Tiles, 5 Racks, Case Etc.Last Chance - Vintage Mah Jong Set With Pink/white Tiles In CaseVintage Butterscotch Bakelite Chinese Mah Jong Game PiecesVintage 1950’s Cardinal Catalin/bakelite Mah Jong Set And Carrying Case Nr Antique Butterscotch Bakelite Chinese Mah Jong Game Pieces, Some CrazingAmerican Mahjong 166-tile Set Rosewood Box With Bat Decoration Hb-ab001-eNew Dal Negro Mah Jong Set - Wood Case - ItaliaVintage 50s 60s Rare Cera Mah Jong Tiles Glass Tumbler Set 6 Mid Century Modern Vintage Retro Mahjong Set With Original Instructions Vintage Mah Jong Mahjong Set By Cardinal 152 Tiles Clean-catalin Very Good CondVintage Antique 147 Tiles, Hand Carved Thick Bone/bamboo Mahjong Set, Mah JonggVintage Cardinal Mah Jongg Set Catalin Embossed Hand Painted Tiles Complete!Trashy Diva Mahjong Trixie Dress Size MVintage Mah Jongg Game Set With Vinyl Case Mah Jong NewAntique Chinese Bone Bamboo Tile Mahjong Set Wood Finger Joint Case Dice DiskAmerican Mahjong Mah-jong ''mojave'' 166-tile Rack/pusher Soft Case Us-am009-a Vintage Mah Jong (16) 3/4" Black Tiles Stretch Bracelet White CharactersVintage Mah Jong Bone & Bamboo Set Of 30 TilesVery Old Heavy Metal Chinese Figure With Counter Box - Mah Jong Interest - RareAmerican Mahjong Mah-jong "elemental" 166-tile Racks Aluminum Case Us-af028-aAmerican Mahjong Mah-jong Pink Sparkles 166-tile Racks Case Us-ax101-a NewI Love Mah Jongg T-shirt + White + Men's Large + Chinese Tile Gambling Game1 Pairs Creative Socks Unisex Warm Harajuku Chinese Mahjong Printed Cotton BlackHandmade Brass Dice Metal Dice Large Town Mahjong Stock DiceCreative Fine Mahjong Dice Key Chain Pendant Resin Keychain Small Gift Pendants3Mahjong Gakuen Mild Hu-card Jp Game.Mahjong Doujyoh Mega Drive Jp Game.Excite Mahjong Pv-1000