Is My Mahjong Box Old? Some Thoughts and Examples

Recently I bought a beautiful mahjong set and lacquer box, both supposedly from the 1920s. The set itself is in incredible shape, with wonderful tight dovetails, thick bone, and some unusual Flowers. And the box was virtually perfect.

But I started to wonder how a box could still be in this wonderful shape when it was about 90 years old.

Here are a few comparisons I made with this set and some older ones.

DSC_0115 box

Newest set, beautiful red lacquer. I noticed a few things:

There are screws anchoring the top medallions to the box


DSC_0117 box


!920's-1930s Foochow lacquer box #1. Notice no screws on the medallions.


DSC_0121 box

1920s-1930s Foochow #2, also no screws on the medallions


DSC_0120 box

Relatively thin handle, and lack of handle "bumper guard" ornamentation meant to prevent handle from hitting the lacquer top


DSC_0118 box

Foochow #1 Thicker handle and bumps to allow the handle to fall open without ruining the box


DSC_0121 box

Foochow box #2, thick handle, and bat ornaments allow the handles to drop


DSC_0122 box

Red lacquer box has handle buttons to protect the tiles from the screws/nails used to attach handles. The other older boxes have handles anchored inside the front of the drawer, and the handle screws do not penetrate the drawer.


DSC_0127 bix

Red box front panel: very little wear, other than where the handles touched the front


DSC_0128 box


Foochow #1 you can see where the panel hit the handles. When there are handles or button pulls, often there are signs of wear. If there are butterfly pulls, and they are still in good shape, there may not be any signs of wear on the front panel.

With Foochow #2, the panel is a drop down one so there was not evidence of use.


DSC_0125 box

The real give-away: Made in Japan.

This label did not exist until 1949. Thus this box is considerably newer that I had thought.

I don't know if this all holds true for everything, but on quick inspection of the boxes in my collection, these are good things to look for.

Anyone, any other thoughts?



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3 thoughts on “Is My Mahjong Box Old? Some Thoughts and Examples

  1. Tony

    Gregg, another pointer to older wooden boxes is the dovetailing.
    Modern boxes have regular, evenly-spaced dovetails and the panels are clean-cut, whereas old boxes have random dovetail spacing, very shallow angles, and the panels vary in thickness, sometimes tapering and show uneven saw marks on the inside.
    I've never seen screws on old Chinese boxes; the European and American makers in the 20s did, but their boxes are recognizably Western in appearance.
    The new lacquer boxes coming out of China purport to be old, but they weigh much less, normally made from MDF (my wife mistakenly bought one for me, bless her!)
    Another point on the handles:- most of the pivots are hand-forged brass with iron tails to secure them, so they show the evidence of hammer marks and filing. I think the handles on your Foochow box #2 may be replacements, as they are not the traditional swan-neck style and the pivots seem to be turned on a lathe.

  2. Tony Watson

    To illustrate the hinges, here are:-
    top left, a new cast brass-plated zinc hinge
    top right, a new solid brass turned hinge
    (these are sometimes chemically 'antiqued').
    below, old Chinese forged hinges with iron tails.

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