Often I get asked why there are "blank" tiles in mahjong sets.
There are two answers. One is that some of the tiles are not blanks at all, they are White Dragons. These are commonly found in bone and bamboo sets. There was no need to carve a white Dragon, the whiteness of the bone communicates that it is a White Dragon. But often, even in these old bone and bamboo sets, there are 4 extra tiles, thus eight blank tiles. And the reason is a simple one: if a tile were lost, one of the blanks could be marked or carved and used in its place. If a set has eight bank tiles, it is always a good idea to alternate the use of the White Dragons so that all tiles age the same way.
There are blank tiles in other sets too, including Chinese Bakelite and Bakelite sets. These tiles were always a bit of insurance that a lost tile would not make the set unplayable: one of the other tiles could be adapted. These sets tend to have carved White Dragons, so these tiles usually remain stored in the case until needed.
Given that many sets are nearing 100 years of age, those blank tiles certainly come in handy. I can't tell you how many lost tiles I have been able to replace, with the help of Dee Gallo's skilled carving and painting.