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.