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]

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]

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]

Handhelden.com

Handhelden.com

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 Jongg Set Complete~152 - 144 Reg With Old Case -see Photos -imd ShpVintage Rottgames Bakelite Mah Jong Set 156 Tiles, Dice & 5 Racks W/caseVintage Bakelite Mah-jong Mahjong Set 148 Tiles Carry-case And Extras Near Mint Vintage Coronet Mahjong Tile Bracelet With Glass Tiles, Unknown Brass Tone MetalAntique 1900`s Chinese Wooden Boxed Carved/painted Mah Jong Set Bone/bamboo TileAntique 1920's Mah Jong,mah-jongg Set,bamboo & Engraved Tiles,w/wood Box,cntrsVintage Chinese Bakelite Mah Jong Tiles 144 Butterscotch Amber Bakelite FaturanVintage Mah Jong Set W/ Attache Case-144 Bakelite Tiles/8 JokersCa.1940 Mah Jong Set--160 Tiles, 5 Tile Racks, With Case..... Great Cond. N/r! Vintage Midcentury Cardinal's Mah Jongg Game Set 156 Bakelite Tiles & CaseVintage Royal Depth Control Mah Jong Case With Two Storage TraysVintage Mah Jongg Mahjong 158 Bakelite Tile 5 Bakelite Rack Faux Alligator Case!Vintage Cardinal Mah Jong Complete SetVintage Mah Jong Set Dove Tail Bamboo & Bone OldVntg Mah Jongg Bone / Bamboo Set- With Jokers For Nmjl. Wooden Box & RacksVintage Mah Jong Set - Bakelite - Alligator Case - 152 Tiles - 4 Trays - No Res!Chinese Mahjong Set Translucent Emerald TilesChinese Golden Silk Mahjong Mahjongg Game SetGreat 1960's Vintage Bakelite/caitlin Cardinal Mah Jongg SetOne Set Of (146) Vintage Bakelite Mah Jong Tiles By E.s. Lowe (tiles Only)Mahjong Mah Jong Mah Jongg Set. Complete, In Good Shape! White Tile Chinese Mahjong SetComplete Traditional Mah Jong Set Of 144 Tiles + 4 Blanks, 3 Dice, And CaseVintage Mah Jong Set 166 Tiles W/ Case Racks Token Very Good Condition1920s? Vintage Chinese Bone & Bamboo Mah Jong, Mahjong Set, 119 Tiles Thick BoneBakelite Mah Jong Jongg Stoppers E's SwirlyVintage Mah-jongg White Dragon Edition 4 Boxed Trays Butterscotch Bakelite Mah Jong Set W/ 4 Bakelite Rails, Chips 143 Tiles & Book1920s Chinese Mahjong SetBeautiful Mahjong Set 3-tone/tri-color Pink/semiclear/white -mahjong Jongg 50sVery Old Mah Jong Set Of Tiles - Bone And Bamboo 130 Pieces - 1920's -30'sFull Set Mah Jong TilesBakelite Mah Jong Jongg Tiles Monobridge All BamsVintage Bakelite Mah Jong Tiles (11) Mah Jongg Vintage Playing Set W/ Snake Skin Case And ContainersMah Jong Set Vintage 1940s With 4 Catalin Racks & Case 152 Tiles Cardinal Mah Jongg Tile Game 1968/1969Old Mah Jong Jongg Rack EndsPair Of Japanese Vintage Kokeshi Wooden Doll 6.5cm / Mah-jongg20+ Vintage Dice Bakelite Poker Mah Jong Casino Lot BMahjong Set -scarab Scarlet *1* 20mm Wind Direction Die & *4* Players' DiceFive Vintage Bakelite Mah Jong Jongg Emperor Tiles (1 Through 5)Msx Jissen 4 Nin Mahjong Import Japan Video Game 0727uamsx1 Pc Of Mattress Mat Pad Flexible Mahjong Bamboo Usa Seller Size FullAmerican Mahjong Set In Burgundy Bag / Full Size 166 Tiles New Western MahjonggCardinal Mah Jong Replacement Tile Lot #8 Made From Bakelite CatalinChinese Traditional Mahjong Playing Cards 144 Card SetMahjong Summit Rom Famicom Cartridge + Manual Import Japan Game No Box 0727tafcc