words before we begin....
Although Joseph Babcock is given credit for bringing Mah Jongg to the "western world", I would like to clarify that he was not the first - just the most publicized. When you have a good American company like Parker Brothers doing the advertising, it's not that surprising that he is so well known at least in the United States. Babcock's "little red book" is very well known and a nice collectable.
A German company, F. Ad. Richter & Co AG, was manufacturing mah jong sets prior to 1920. They sent a man to China to research the game in 1916, and both his studies in China and his work a year later in Germany are documented in both countries. This company was manufacturing children's building blocks (sold under the name Richter or Anchor) in the late 1800's, and it is still in business making stone building blocks today. Pictures of their highly collectable stone mah jong sets can be found in my museum and the Mah Jong Museum in Japan. I do not think they are still making mah jong items.
In the early years, the 1920's and 1930's, there were probably only a few actual manufacturers of mah jong tiles, and they were in China. Several companies in the US imported the tiles and distributed them to other companies who "accessorized them" by putting them in fabulous cases, adding racks, bettors, coins, etc. Those companies are now getting credit for manufacturing the sets because their label is in the case or on some documentation that came with the accessorized set.
Importers can't do this today, but it was a common practice in the early part of the last century. Now having said this, I would like to expand on that a bit. There were at least two companies in the U.S. that were manufacturing sets: Piroxloid had two factories. Pung Chow had a factory, and it is possible that Parker Bros. was manufacturing their sets in the U.S. as well. I do not know which factory was making whose sets. They could have been sharing the manufacturing process. One factory making strictly wooden sets, and another making celluloid and so on. Piroxloid and Pung Chow both made wooden sets which I believe were made in the US, but I think it is possible that their other sets, the French Ivory and Pryalin, were imported.
During the 1960's there was a cultural revolution in China (polite expression); in fact, it was when China came under Communist rule. It was a tragic time because the master craftsmen were forced to do other types of work, and they were not allowed to pass on their skills to the next generation. Many of the old ways were frowned upon. Many traditions and old ways of life would no longer be allowed. Since Mah Jong was a gambling game, it was banned. Sets were confiscated and destroyed, and manufacturing ceased. Remember, at that time the U.S. banned trade with China. Oh, and the quality of those "American" sets also suffered, although some of the designs were continued. It is clear that the quality of the materials and craftsmanship were nothing like the "golden age" between 1920 and 1950.
Bakelite and Catalin were no longer being manufactured either. Plastic sets did arrive from Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I am not a plastics expert, but I can tell the difference between Catalin, Bakelite, and modern plastics. There is a variety of tiles that is affectionately known as "Chinese Bakelite" that test positive for Bakelite but after shaving down a few, I think they are some form of Celluloid. I will still refer to them as Chinese Bakelite. The term "affectionately known" refers to name that collectors use to identify sets.
At times, it seems like there is an endless number of inexpensive wooden sets in cardboard boxes. In one old newspaper advertisement I have, there was coupon for a "free mah jong" set -- just mail in the coupon. Did other companies like the Chinese Silk company make mah jong? I don't think so, but I do think that they gave "promotional gifts" to their valued customers. The same goes for the bank in Oklahoma, and the insurance company down the block. Businesses were probably bombarded with sets as promotional items like the cheap pens of today. So, the next time you see a cheap set on eBay with the box falling apart, consider that it was probably originally a promotional gift or something along those lines. If you want a travel set, please consider one of these. After all balsa wood, is very light weight, and the tiles are often smaller than Bakelite or Catalin ones - great sets to pack in the corner of a suitcase! Some of the graphics on these sets are truly wonderful. Please keep the box and any documents that come with it in a safe place, or get in touch with me, I may be interested.
Mah Jongg Sales of America was an American company based in San Francisco; they had a great store, too. All of their sets were imported from China - most of them were clearly labeled "Made in China". I am mentioning them because there is quite a bit of information available about this company, and their sets are very distinctive because of the designs of the Flower/Season, the dragon tiles, and the words Mah Jongg spelled with 2 G's (the style of the font used and all the tiles were copyright protected). Mah Jongg Sales of America was purchased by Parker Brothers but the merchandising remained separate. Parker Brothers put their name on the less expensive wood, cardboard, and playing card sets while Mah Jongg Sales of America remained the company selling better quality sets made from Bone & Bamboo, Bakelite, and Catalin.
When I refer to a company from now on it will be in the context that their "label" is associated with certain designs and in some instances with accessories. I am in no way implying that they actually manufactured the tiles. I have spent many years buying and looking at different sets, and studying books and magazine ads in order to arrive at the information that I am passing on to all of you. I think it will simplify identifying sets using this method, and it fits well with what we have been doing all along. I want to be sure that everyone understands there is someone in China who deserves credit for the work. I will continue to do my research, and I am hopeful I will be able to get some of that information in time.
My goal is to point out as many differences between the sets that I can, explain why I made the decisions I did, and display as many sets as I can on this site. I am hoping to get everyone on the same page with the labels and descriptions.
Please enjoy your visit...
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