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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

The Ancient Game of the Mandarins
by Bob Brooke


Mahjong has been played in China for over 3,000 years, originating in Canton during the Qing Dynasty before the days of Confucius. Only Mandarins played it, and the early tiles were handmade from ivory.

In 1911, when China became a republic, the game became popular with all classes of people. Mahjong makers produced tiles of bone and bamboo, or just bamboo, which was cheaper and easier to obtain than ivory. The British brought the game from China to England, and eventually to the United States in the early 1920s.

As a game of skill, strategy, and calculation, Mahjong became the rage. Soon there were as many variations to the rules of the game as groups of people playing it. During the Roaring Twenties its popularity soared, but that didn't last long because no one could agree on which rules to follow. The National Mahjong League standardized the rules in 1937, but by this time most players had gone back to playing bridge.

The Game of Mahjong
At first glance, the game of Mahjong may seem confusing, even chaotic, especially if the players are experts. They use strange terms, and the rapidity of calling and discarding tiles appears maddening. The goal of Mahjong is to complete as many levels as possible until at least one player has no more moves left. At that point the game ends.

Players use a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. Some variations may omit some tiles and/or add unique ones. In most variations, each player starts out with 13 tiles. In turn, player each draw and discard tiles until they complete a hand using the 14th drawn tile to form four melds, or sets, and a pair, or eye. Players follow standard rules when drawing tiles and robbing pieces from other players. Standard rules also apply to the use of “simples,” or numbered tiles, and honors, winds and dragons, the kinds of melds allowed, how to deal the tiles, and the order of play.

Mahjong tiles are divided into five groups—suits, dragons, winds, flowers and jokers. There are four winds—north, east, west, and south, and four pieces of each. Three dragons are green, white and red, and there are four of each color. There are three suits—dots, craks and bams, and each suit is numbered from one to nine, with four tiles of each number. Each set also includes eight flower tiles and, depending on the manufacturer of the set, these may depict flowers, mandarins, or seasons of the year. Eight jokers complete the pieces.

Players follow procedures. Each builds a wall 19 tiles face down, two tiers high, in front of each other seated around a table in positions set as points of a compass—North, East, West, and South. The player designated as East starts the game by dealing out the tiles to the others. Players pass the tiles between them In a specified sequence before the game begins, as each player gets rid of unwanted tiles, and hopes to receive pieces which fit a combination in his hand. The game proceeds with drawing and discarding tiles until one player completes a hand which contains 14 tiles in a specific combination, then that player calls "mahjong." Combinations include hands similar to a game of rummy—three of a kind, four of a kind, consecutive runs, etc. Each combination has a listed value for scoring. Sometimes, players draw all the tiles before anyone gets mahjong. It ‘s important for participants to play defensively so that other players don’t complete a hand. Only one player can mahjong.

"Old Hong Kong Mahjong" uses the same basic features and rules as the majority of the different variations of the game. This form of Mahjong uses all of the tiles of the commonly available sets, includes no exotic complex rules, and has a relatively small set of scoring sets/hands with a simple scoring system.

By the early 1900s, Mahjong had become a craze in the United States. The first Mahjong sets came to America from China. Some came in handsome rosewood boxes with separate drawers for the stones, wind, flowers, and other Mahjong tiles. The best of these had fine joinery and ornate brass hardware and dice, but many sets came packed in handpainted cardboard boxes. While tiles in less expensive sets were wooden, those in deluxe sets could be ivory or jade.

Mahjong’s popularity continued into the 1950s, then waned in the second half of the 20th century, but surged again in the 1990s after the publication and film version of Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club."

Antique Mahjong Sets
Finding a complete antique set of tiles requires some perseverance. The completeness of a set depends on the variation of the game being played. As with a deck of cards, it’s essential that all tiles match. Early sets contained 144 tiles, a pair of dice, betting sticks which were used much like poker chips to represent money for wagers, markers portraying the seated players, a counter reflecting the four winds which the “bettor,” a fifth player, used to indicate his or her choice of the winner, and some kind of suitable box in which to store all the pieces. Craftsmen made these boxes of fine, carved woods, inlaid with mother of pearl or fitted with silver or brass handles. Sets made after 1923 often came with a small instruction book.

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, Piroxloid Products Corporation stands out. It’s peak 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. Piroxloid marbled its Mahjong racks in deep chocolates and vibrant greens, and made dice 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," 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. While the Piroxloid sets came with a Manovill rulebook, Parker Brothers sets came 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 material favored by Pung Chow, which had factories in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In the mid-1920s, Pung Chow’s produced its Pyralin Mahjong tiles either as solid tiles or as veneers on inexpensive wooden tiles.

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 which had tiles and racks made from translucent Catalin. Met used its tile designs over and over on different models. The company also made model with 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. It packed its sets 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

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