Mah Jongg is a table game that originated in China and is played throughout the world; there are many regional variations. In some countries, especially in Asia, it is also a gambling game. Mah Jongg sets often include counters for keeping score, dice to determine the deal, a marker to show the dealer and the round being played, and racks to hold the players' tiles. These "tiles" are usually domino-size blocks of plastic, wood, or even ivory, or a combination thereof (but they can also be, simply, small cards). A set normally has 152 tiles, consisting of suits (characters, bamboos, and circles or dots), two honors suits made up of the three dragons and the four winds (East, South, West, North), and bonus tiles, one of each of the four seasons and four flowers. All have Chinese characters and symbols, and some have numbers on them while others show the number by the repetition of a motif. Different countries may have a different number of tiles (a minimum of 136), and older, collectible American sets have 144 tiles, making them unsuitable for play using current rules. American Mah Jongg is also different from that played in other countries in that a new "rules card" is introduced every year, stipulating the hand or score necessary to win.
Each player receives tiles and, in turn, draws and discards tiles until completing a legal hand; tiles can also be stolen from another player (melded). To win, a player must accumulate the right combination of tiles (four melds and special patterns) with a score that meets the agreed upon minimum.
By Bruce Whitehill
Mah Jongg, a game that was a craze in the U.S. throughout the 1920s, feels like a game that should have ancient roots, although the game as we know it today dates back only to the late 1800s. One source (a Google Mah Jongg timeline) places the game's Chinese antecedent at around 500 BC, but it has been the game of China for little more than a century. In fact, The People's Republic of China banned the game when it took over in 1949, outlawing all gambling activities, considered symbols of capitalism; the prohibition was rescinded in 1985, following a revival of the game--without the gambling elements--after the Cultural Revolution.
The first known mention of "Ma-jong" in any language other than Chinese occurred in 1895 in a paper by American anthropologist (and ethnographer) and games historian Stewart Culin, but the game's ancestry is as much a mystery as the reasons for its rapid rise in popularity after its introduction to the U.S. around 1920. It is linked with card games and dominoes, the design (and, indeed, some of the early sets) being suited to cards but the material and shape resembling the domino tile. In fact, like dominoes, this tile game is meant to incorporate the clacking and scraping sounds made by the cool ivory, Bakelite, ivoroid, or even bamboo and other wood pieces as they are slammed onto the table and mixed against one another. With its sounds, the images of an Oriental motif, and the feel of the tiles, Mah Jongg is a game for the senses, as well as one for the intellect.
By 1922, the Mah Jongg craze was taking hold. A patent was filed May 25, 1922, for a "Cabinet for Holding Games" by Albert R. Hager, "Assignor to the Mah-Jong Company of China, of San Francisco, California," a co-partnership with (among one other) Joseph Babcock, the man credited for introducing the "American” rules for Mah Jongg. Both Hager and Babcock were U.S. citizens, Hager a resident of Shanghai and Babcock residing in Tsinin, China. The patent reads, in part, "The cabinet as thus constructed is suitable for use as a container for the pieces of games such as dominoes, Chinese games using similarly shaped pieces, and the like (consisting of several draws of different heights)....especially designed for the containing of the pieces used in Chinese games, wherein more than the usual game pieces and counters are employed."
In December of 1922, Babcock himself applied for a patent for Mah-Jongg tiles, represented in suits "known as 'characters,' 'bamboos,' and 'dots' or 'circles'" and refers to "dragons," "winds" and also "seasons," a term Babcock preferred over "flowers." Another individual also filed in December of 1922, his application being for a "Game Piece Support" patent "particularly intended for use when playing such games as mah jongg, pung chow, dominoes, or the like...."
A year later (Dec. 14, 1923), Babcock applied for a design patent for a set of dominoes showing a Chinese motif similar to that he used on the Mah Jongg tiles. At this point, Babcock spelled the name of his company the "Mah Jongg Company of China." [Throughout this article, I have used the spelling, capitalization and punctuation taken from the applicable documents researched, hence the notable lack of consistency.]
Earlier, in March, 1923, one Miriam Cowen filed a patent application for a "Combined Case and Rack for Games" which she went on to describe as being "particularly adapted to the game known as Mah-Jongg...." Fifteen months later, a Stanley Cowen of the same city as Miriam (San Francisco) filed a patent for the familiar game rack later used for Mah Jongg tiles. Throughout 1924, a number of patents for Mah-Jongg trays, racks and accessories were filed, many by people living in the Bay Area (San Francisco and surroundings) of California.
By 1924, Mah Jongg was a huge fad nationwide. In his 1960 book, It's All in the Game, James J. Shay, Milton Bradley Company president for many years during and following WWII, reported that "The Company was...among the first to seize and capitalize on a curious craze that swept the country in 1922 by producing a popular adaptation of the complicated Chinese game of mah jongg....mah jongg was one of the biggest and quickest successes the Company has had. For several months its plant operated 24 hours a day in an effort to keep up with orders until competitors began to take up the slack."
Mah-Jongg became the game of the Roaring Twenties. According to author Peter Andrews ("Games People Played," American Heritage Magazine, June 1972), "Americans paid from four to 150 dollars per set of its intricate compilation of ivory tiles and bamboo counters....", and "Interior decorators did a tidy business selling customers special Mah-Jongg accessories for parties. Some of the more opulent aficionados had an entire room in their homes redone àla Chine and dressed themselves in Oriental robes just to play."
The reason behind the tremendous success of Mah Jongg and the extremely rapid spread of the game in the U.S. in the 1920s is something of speculation. Perhaps it was the perfect fit for a time of speakeasies and exuberant dances. And, though the game was introduced in America around 1920, the excitement over all things "Oriental" may have furthered the fad following the discovery of King Tut's Tomb in November of 1922.
By 1925, the Mah Jongg craze was in full fashion. The Jan. 25, 1924 issue of The Saturday Evening Post featured a cover illustration of a woman playing Mah Jongg, and the song, "Since Ma is Playing Mah Jongg," became popular as sung by the noted Jewish singer and entertainer, Eddie Cantor. I mention Jewish because somewhere along the line, the game of Mah Jongg became the game associated with Jewish-American life.
An exhibition explaining this--or, at least, trying to--is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, New York, through February 27, 2011. In their introduction, the curators state that Mah Jongg "quickly became a fixture in the Jewish communal world. Mah jongg games offered relaxation, companionship, and a way to raise money for worthy causes.... With thousands of rule cards sold each year, mah jongg became a leading device in Jewish women's philanthropy." These "cards" showed new combinations of winning hands and were put out every spring by the National Mah Jongg League, a group founded in 1937; this annual change (the old cards merely went out of circulation) distinguishes the American version of the game from that played in the rest of the world and "keeps it fresh"! The text goes on to say that the game became "a favorite activity of the bungalow colonies of the Catskills" and "an entertainment ritual in suburban Jewish homes....and it continues to be a vital part of communal, personal, and cultural life."
The small exhibit is full of wondrous things. Pictures of women playing Mah Jongg in a swimming pool. Sounds of a game in progress. Art that incorporated Mah Jongg motifs, such as illustrations of four Mah-Jongg-inspired dresses by noted fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, including "a pool look (any Miami Jewess worth her salt has a poolside mah jongg game once a week)." And as an aficionado of early television, I was surprised to learn that Mah Jongg was taught on television on the Dumont Network in 1951.
There are pictures throughout the room of women playing Mah Jongg--pictures so familiar that I actually looked to see if I could find my mother among them. But why did she, a reasonably good bridge player, take to Mah Jongg so completely, and more than 30 years after it became a fad, at that? How did Mah Jongg become so closely associated with Jewish-American women?
One source (http://www.sloperama.com/mjfaq.html) suggested that the game's popularity among women was because "the American game was designed by women, to be enjoyed by women. American mah-jongg is completely different from all other forms of mah-jongg because of changes that female players made in the game during the 1930s."
According to exhibition curator Melissa Martens, between 1922 and 1925, Mah Jongg was a "high-society phenomenon" played primarily "by women who had leisure time, and a penchant for entertaining." And as a game also associated with Chinese immigrant culture, "The combination of high-end and immigrant associations would have made the game a likely entertainment for Jewish-American women, who understood both ends of that spectrum."
Ms. Martens wrote that restrictions dictated where Jewish Americans could reside and vacation during the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. "Partially as a result of this, many Jewish Americans lived and vacationed near each other. Mah jongg was most easily played by those in close proximity to each other." Then, in 1937, when the National Mah Jongg League put a notice in the New York Times calling for people interested in standardizing the American rules, "some 200 women showed up, all Jewish. Most were of German-Jewish descent...."
Throughout the war, some Hadassah groups played Mah Jongg to raise funds for Allied causes. The National Mah Jongg League decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of cards to philanthropies, as designated by the membership. Since many of the members were Jewish, many of the philanthropies designated were Jewish ones.
Melissa Martens continues, "In the post-war years, mah jongg continued to be a fixture of suburban Jewish life and Jewish resort life. Now that younger Jewish women are inheriting the mah jongg sets of their mothers and grandmothers, mah jongg connects them to past generations of Jewish-American women and their traditions."
For more information about the exhibition, go to http://www.projectmahjongg.com/; for information about the museum, go to http://www.mjhnyc.org/ or phone (646) 437-4200. And for more information about Mah Jongg, search online for Mah Jongg, Mah-Jongg, Mah Jong, Mah-Jong, Ma-jong, Má Què, Má Jiàng, Mu Tsia, Khanhoo, Pung Chow, Mah Cheuk, Ma Chiang, Man Chu, Mah Diao, Ma Chong, Mah Chong, Ching Chong, Kong Chow, or Mah Deuck, among others.
This article has been submitted on 30 November, 2010 for publication in The AGPC Quarterly, the official publication of the Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors. ©2010 Bruce Whitehill. All rights reserved. Permission to print excerpts will be granted to parties who contact the author at email@example.com.