vintage mah jong game

Mah Jong game

Q: I picked up this Mahjong game and don’t know if it might be worth something or not. I have never even heard of the game other than the Internet game version. To me it looks really old but I would appreciate anything you can tell me. Thank you.

A: This is the perfect time of year to sit outdoors and play a game or two of Mah Jongg or Mah Jong.

The game originated in China and legend has it that the philosopher Confucius invented the game but there is no basis of fact for this as there is no evidence that the game existed in any form prior to 1880.mahjongset3

Around 1920 the game made its way westward to America where its popularity skyrocketed as it did pretty much worldwide. What initiated the Mah Jongg boom was a simple book of instruction and rules written by Joseph Park Babcock (1893-1949), an American working for Standard Oil in China. While in China, Babcock and his wife enjoyed playing this game with tiles. In 1920 Babcock wrote a book that simplified the game and included instructions and rules for play with the sole purpose of introducing the game to America. He began importing games to the U.S. and of course one could purchase “the red book” to learn how to play this beautiful and exotic game.

It is said that that Babcock trademarked the spelling “Mah Jongg” and the book he wrote is referred to simply as “the red book.”

In later years Babcock was able to broker a deal with Parker Brothers and his book was included in Mah Jongg games made and distributed by that company.

The game that you see online is a solitaire tile matching game and is played much differently from the “real” game. Mah Jongg is played very much like the American card game Rummy. A set of 144 tiles consists of 36 tiles in the bamboo suit, 36 in the circle or dot suit, 36 in the character suit, 16 wind tiles, 12 dragon tiles and 8 bonus tiles (4 flowers and 4 seasons). You can form Kongs, Pungs and Chows with your tiles. Your set has counting sticks, coins and other traditional components.

Based on all of the photographs you sepic of playing mahjongnt to me, your “red book” is dated 1923. The box appears to be rosewood with brass accents. The tiles have bamboo on the back and the front doesn’t appear to be ivory or bone so it is more than likely Bakelite or Catalan both of which are early plastics.

All pieces seem to be present and the case is in very good condition so the retail price is $175-$225.

** All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawn shop prices are about ½ or less of resale value.

Please send your questions to Questions with photographs will be considered for publication. There is no guarantee that your question will be answered or published.

If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to Michelle Knows Antiques for a one on one appraisal.

Written by Michelle Staley

Michelle Staley has over 35 years of experience as an antique collector, picker and dealer. She has done hundreds of insurance and IRS appraisals in addition to just satisfying another collector or dealer’s curiosity concerning what an item is, does or its worth. Other experience includes her work as a forensics consultant and in archeological identification and dating.

See all posts by

  1. I am very interested in your information on MahJongg sets. My stepfather gave me a set
    back in the 50’s and said his father brought it back from Asia where he was an engineer for the railway. I had it appraised on line at $400.00. I was also told the stitching on the case was done by hand and not machine. I would like to have your opinion if possible. I am 86 years young so you can have an idea of the age of the set. Ricki Macey, Tucson, AZ

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 × one =