Luke Honey’s cabinet of curiosities: 1920s mahjong sets

Antiques dealer Luke Honey muses on the appeal of collecting 1920s mahjong sets...

A rare 1920s mahjong set from Kaufmann & Baer department store Pennsylvania. Image by Leo Bieber

‘Welcome to the mysterious world of mah-jongg: that most ancient of Chinese games, as played by Mandarins for thousands of years – its origins hidden in the mists of time…’ 

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I have to admit that I’ve made this quote up, as it’s just the sort of thing you’ll find in a 1920s mahjong rules book. But don’t believe a word of it! Or, at least, not all of it, for the game of mahjong is not quite what it seems.

Whats the history of modern mahjong?

Mahjong, in its modernised Western form, was reinvented by an American, one Joseph Park Babcock (1893–1949), an executive of the Standard Oil Company. In 1912, Standard Oil sent Babcock to Soochow, China, where, in the gambling dens and English colonial clubs, he came across an addictive 19th-century tile game that had taken China by storm. Sensing an opportunity, he came up with a simplified version and repackaged it under the trade mark ‘Mah-Jongg’, which, these days, we tend to spell ‘mahjong’. There are many variations across the world but, as with playing cards, the aim is to build up a winning hand.

An unusual ‘Red Lacquered’ Chinese mahjong set c1920, £650, Luke Honey Ltd.
An unusual ‘Red Lacquered’ Chinese mahjong set c1920, £650, Luke Honey Ltd.

In 1920, W. A. Hammond, a lumber merchant from San Francisco, formed The Mah Jongg Sales Company and began to import large quantities of sets to the United States. Abercrombie & Fitch sold the first mahjong sets. The game took off and became a huge craze across America and Britain. In a sense, Babcock was lucky: his game coincided with a revived fashion for chinoiserie, which flourished in the years after the First World War.

Enterprising businessmen set up numerous workshops in the area around Shanghai. Here, large quantities of mahjong sets were produced, specifically for export to the West. Artisans fashioned the tiles from American cow bone mounted with bamboo and, during the height of the mahjong craze, vast quantities of bone were shipped to China from the Kansas and Chicago cattle sheds. To finish, local children engraved, stained and coloured the tiles with Chinese characters, symbols and motifs.

A Whippet on a four poster bed

And then, at the end of the decade, the rage for mahjong died out almost as suddenly as it had started, replaced by an instantaneous obsession with miniature golf. Today, almost 100 years later, mahjong is fashionable again, and demand for vintage sets is rising.

How to buy a vintage mahjong set

First, don’t believe anybody who tells you the tiles are made of ivory. They’re usually not. The majority of 1920s mahjong tiles are made from either cow bone or ‘ivorine’ (an early form of celluloid), mounted onto bamboo. I have never – as yet – seen a mahjong set with ivory tiles. Jade, yes. But not ivory.

The typical 1920s mahjong set comes in a stained wooden case with a sliding panel to the front, often decorated with Chinese characters, and sometimes intricately carved with dragons, foliage, insects, plants and trees. There will be a brass carrying handle and protective brass mounts to the sharp edges. Inside, pull-out drawers will hold the tiles (with a space to ease removal), and there will be a divided drawer to hold the bone counting sticks, miniature dice (often in a box with a sliding lid), Ming box and wind discs. 

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How much are vintage mahjong sets worth?

Vintage mahjong sets turn up for sale at auction, and can fetch in the region of £200–£300 for good 1920s Shanghai versions. Expect to pay more from a specialist dealer – as is so often the case in the world of antiques, it’s the rarer and more unusual examples that command the higher prices.

Antiques dealer, Luke Honey
Luke Honey is an antiques dealer and writer. Find out more at lukehoney.co.uk