Discover Vintage America - MAY 2016

Mah Jong game set came in a rosewood box

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.

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 sent 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.

Note: 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 pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to for a one-on-one appraisal.