It will not come as a surprise to any of you that I love many different types of sets. I have a special place in my heart for one-of-a-kind ones, perhaps made for children to enjoy. I came upon this special little set, briefly on ebay, and I had to share it with you.  These tiles are hand-painted, not carved, and the set must have been loved.

How adorable are these Dragons? They might have even been painted by a child. Each one is different. They each have their own distinct looks: some look like caterpillars, others like dogs, and even T-Rexes.



The Wind characters have been painted with élan and enthusiasm. I like that the Western letters are on the top and bottom of the tiles so that they can be read both right-side up and upside down. I suspect that someone older must have worked on these tiles, if I am right about the Dragons.


These Craks are delightful, and the energy on the Chinese numbers and Wans radiates out from the tiles. Once again, the designs are much more sophisticated than those of the Dragons.


The Bams have their own unique designs, so likely done by someone with great creativity (unless they were copying some other set I have yet to find and identify).


The Dots have their own special style as well.

The more I think about it, the more I feel this set was made by several people, working together to make a set to be played with and enjoyed.  I imagine a scene around a table, with perhaps a parent or two, and a child, collaborating on a game  which would be a wonderful way to pass the time together as a family.

Certainly these tiles brought a smile to your face, as they did to mine.

A set does not have to be a masterpiece to be a treasure.


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I thought you all would enjoy seeing this wonderful set made in Vermont, a state with a long history of design and craftsmanship. This set, made in Brandon by the Newtown & Thompson Company, has wonderful and unique designs for many of the tile faces, as you will see. My friend Gail once told me that one of the many things she loves about the game is that no one was priced out of it. In fact, many of the most delightful designs can be found on some of the most affordable sets, and this is one of them. And aren't these some of the most darling dragons you have ever seen?


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You will notice on this box there is no mention of anything vaguely "Mahjong" related, not wanting to risk any copy-right issues. It is just a game of Tiles. The box has delightful stylized Dragons, one on each side, with their ever-present pearl hidden in the smoke, right above the T and the S.


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Take a look at the tile designs. The Craks have a very Asian flair to them, the Dots have some unusual arrangements, although we have seen these before. But the Bams! I have never seen 4 Bams stacked up like that, or the 7 Bam with the top one off-side, or the 8 Bam with two rows of four. It takes a lot of creativity to make arrangements of tile designs unique and these designers did it! But there are no visual cues as to which suits the Dragon belong to: the Craks are black but the Dragon is Red, The Dots are red but their Dragon is painted black, only the Bams got a Dragon that is the same color as the tiles. And the designers made it be two-tone by painting the backs of the tiles!

And did you notice the Flowers? The 1 Flowers almost seem upside down if you keep the number 1 on the top (which is why I put the #1 on the bottom, so that the flower would be right-side up). Kind of funny, right?


Friend and blog reader Cari took this lovely photo the other day of  the National Mah Jongg League's 2015 hand. It calls for 2 Flowers, followed by the year repeated three times in the three suits. In all hands calling for a zero, the White Dragon is used. What is wonderful about this hand is that many of the most special tiles, the Ones, and the Flowers are used, and often the White Dragon is quite lovely too.

So, I thought it would be fun to celebrate 2016 showing the great variety of styles and images on Mahjong sets.  A big thanks to the readers who took photos and sent them in, including Barney, Tracy, Geraldine, Debra, Gail and Cari, as well as the others. We have a delightful array of sets, showing the great variety of ways designers and craftsmen have added beauty to this fabulous game, ranging from paper cards, to wood, to bakelite, Chinese Bakelite, bone and bamboo, and mother-of-pearl. All of these sets are treasured by their owners, and all have brought great happiness to the players around the table. What better way to celebrate the new year than by looking at art that has made people happy?


A mass-produced and highly collectible Chinese Bakelite set with unusual Flowers and Bams
A mass-produced and highly collectible Chinese Bakelite set with unusual Flowers and Bams


a recent set, made in Asia
a recent set, made in Asia


A Lung Chan set, with two tone (blue) backs. Lung Chan features a suite of bird Flowers.
A Lung Chan set, with two tone (blue) backs. Lung Chan features a suite of bird Flowers.


The tiles in the middle feature mother-of-pearl faces set in wood
The tiles in the middle feature mother-of-pearl faces set in wood


Rust colored Ashton & Rietz
Rust colored Ashton & Rietz


Black Bamboo
Black Bamboo


Delightful Bone and Bamboo set with animal Flowers
Delightful Bone and Bamboo set with animal Flowers


from back to front: Waterbury Button Company, Marke Pehafra, rare Chinese Bakelite two-tone pillow-top set
from back to front: Waterbury Button Company, Marke Pehafra, rare Chinese Bakelite two-tone pillow-top set

The following eight contributions belong to one collector:

Contemporary plastic set
Contemporary plastic set
 wood set
wood set
Contemporary plastic
Contemporary plastic
contemporary plastic
contemporary plastic
miniature plastic traveling set
miniature plastic traveling set
children's Royal Depth Control traveling set
children's Royal Depth Control traveling set
TYL two-tone Bakelite set from the 1940s (backs are chocolate-brown)
TYL two-tone Bakelite set from the 1940s (backs are chocolate-brown)
Contemporary set with Day-Glo colors
Contemporary set with Day-Glo colors


Mother of pearl faces on ebony
Mother of pearl faces on ebony
Beautiful Thick Bone and Bamboo tiles, Peach (longevity) Dots with One Dot encircling a coiled Dragon, different longevity symbols on Craks with Bank-style Chinese numbers, Bamboo shoot Bams with hovering hawk symbolizing China's strength
Beautiful Thick Bone and Bamboo tiles, Peach (longevity) Dots with One Dot encircling a coiled Dragon, different longevity symbols on Craks with Bank-style Chinese numbers, Bamboo shoot Bams with hovering hawk symbolizing China's strength


Chinese Game Company with special Dragons
Chinese Game Company with special Dragons


The wonderful variety of mahjong sets, including paper cards, wood, and Portland Billiard Company (the first set behind the front cards)
The wonderful variety of mahjong sets, including paper cards, wood, and Portland Billiard Company (the first set behind the front cards)


beautiful sloping circles, label unknown
beautiful sloping circles, label unknown


Red MJ
highly carved set featuring crane (longevity) Dots, peacock Bams, and Craks with bats (longevity and prosperity) on the sides


Magnificent Bone and Bamboo set with lacquer box
Magnificent Bone and Bamboo set with lacquer box
Shanghai Luck Bone and Bamboo
Shanghai Luck Bone and Bamboo


close up of Craks 2016
close up of Craks 2016

Here's a close-up of the Craks suit from this hand. If you look carefully, you can see peaches on the top and bottom. Peaches are symbols of longevity in China. And on the left and right there are bats, also symbols of longevity, but because of the way the Chinese word for bat  is pronounced, the bat also symbolizes prosperity. Dragonflies, seen on the White Dragon, represent pureness of character according to Confucian ideals.

So let us hope that 2016 is a year of longevity, prosperity, and pureness of character.







There are times that some people just get lucky. 

Here's a photo of one lucky find.  To begin with, it certainly is an unusual box, with the very tall brass handle and big brass fittings. The inside is just as wonderful, but you will have to wait to see it!

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I recently received this email from a reader:

"Thank you, I have no prior knowledge of these so your help is invaluable. It was posted on a vintage facebook group I am in and I was drawn to it for some reason..  I had to have it, I just loved it.  I purchased it needing some tlc for $50 aud.

The lady found it in her bathroom 10 years ago when she purchased her home in Fremantle, Perth (Australia). I bought it 3 days ago in the same condition she found it. The only piece of paper that came with it is written in Dutch 

On some tiles the brass had separated from the timber base, I have glued both them and drawers back together. One drawer is missing the back piece, (I have not replaced the piece, not sure what to do about that) everything else is intact. I have not cleaned the tiles, I am reluctant to until I know more about it. The history is important to me and I would be devastated if I ruined the story.

Most of the set is glued together, no pins on the tiles just some type of adhesive. The drawers and handles are glued, however the runners are brass, these have screws. The screws are small and with the angle its hard to see if they are machine made. I could see circles on one though so I suspect handmade but cant be sure.

The base of the cabinet has some residue adhesive on it, and you can see some brass pins, as the front of doors also overhang the base, I suspect there is a missing base plate. The cabinet is very heavy for its size. Someone has suggested it may be palm wood. The back corners of the cabinet are dovetailed, to my eye these are handmade by someone very skilled. There are slight irregularities which indicates to me a machine was not used (keep in mind though I can only compare from what I know about antique furniture, I have never looked into something so small before)

The pieces (tiles) measure 32mm long x 21mm wide x 16mm deep. There are irregularities in the engraving so this also tells me handmade. The two dice have a blank side for the one and the four is painted red. 

There are no markings that I can see on anything at all. 

Under the handle there is a small rectangular mark, I wonder if something had of been glued there at one stage."

So now for the big reveal:

A five drawer chest

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You will notice the tops of the tiles are brass, glued onto the wood backing.   Everything about this set is unusual. The Wind indicators are octagonal painted brass pieces, that fit into the large piece with the four big screws. The dice and the counters are also metal. I love the brass counters with the red trim on some of them. That blue color of paint is rare.

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Looking at the set like this, I get a nautical feeling about it. Certainly those big rounded screws around the wind indicators bear a resemblance to portholes on ships, such as this one from the mid 20th century. Brass was often used for ship fittings.

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Many portholes have three screws to hold the window in place, but not all as you can see above.

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The carvings are highly unusual, with great style.

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The Crak characters look like European versions of the design, as do the renderings of the Chinese numbers which are also highly stylized. I love the way these three numbers almost build to a triangle. The Arabic numbers are very clearly carved, with elaborate versions of the numbers.

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Look at the way the Chinese 7 is carved. It really looks like Neptune's trident to me:


Here's Neptune in a statue in Virginia Beach, VA, with his trident which is quite similar to the Chinese 7, right?

The One and Two Dots have stars inside

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The One and Two Dots which are more elaborate than the other Dots which are circles within circles. To me these are very similar to the Nautical compass, or Rose Compass, with the two outside circles surrounding the eight pointed star:


This image is from:



The 7 Dots has a different design too, although we have seen this before on some other sets:

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The Bams are unusual too:

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It almost looks as if  the Two Bams are tied with a ribbon.


The Flowers, and there are only four as is common in many types of play:

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You will see the plants associated with these designs:

plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, but all lacking the Chinese characters we often see. I don't know the reason behind the "pip" on the top of the tiles, unless they are there to readily and quickly identify the tile by touch as a lucky or bonus tile.

Here is the translation of the piece of paper found with the set:

"Environmental pollution the Chinese way.

The government of the British Crown colony Hong Kong has, in the context of their environmental defensive, started to combat the Chinese passion: the game of Mahjong.

According to the government, the noise of the mahjong tiles on the gaming tables, disturbs the evening calm of the highly populated areas of Hong Kong, in a irresponsible way.

The government however does think twice before forbidding mahjong. Instead it suggests to cover the tables with cloth to hush the echo."

Many of us know how futile it would be to ban the playing of Mahjong; table covers are a much better way of dealing with the noise problem!


Some closeups of the box, so that you can see the wood used and the brass runners for the drawers:



Reader Tony Watson has weighed in with some thoughts about the wood used:

"I've had a really good look at the wood on these tiles; it's definitely NOT palm, the nearest thing I can associate it with is Laburnum, looking at the side grain. But the end grain is so straight, the tree diameter would need to be massive not to show any curvature so I don't think the wood is 'natural'.
I think this is plywood, but not your ordinary stuff; I think it's a load of veneers glued together - thats the only way I can see to get the grain looking the same on the end and the side; most evident on the edges of the top panel of the box. Down the side at the dovetails, you can see that the sanding has revealed the layers of the veneers (I think?) Don't know what the wood is, but it has flecks like beech, but so does iroko, so this might be a better candidate? "


Given that Fremantle is a major port in Australia, I would hazard a guess that the set was made for someone in the shipping business, perhaps a ship's captain who spent time in Europe, hence the piece of paper with the notice about noisy mahjong players translated at the beginning of the piece.

The sharp edges of the tiles indicate that the set was not made in China since the Chinese don't like sharp edges. The set's carvings somewhat resemble the mother-of-pearl one we saw earlier this year.

What a wonderful, probably one of a kind, find.


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To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon



Reader Tony Watson, whose google site is listed in the Resources area, has written a wonderful piece on hand-made sets.

Thank you Tony

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Close ups of each set now follow:

First set, French, possibly made by CF





2nd set, a tiny one from Austria. with applied label




3rd set, a very unusual one




4th set, handmade in Belgium of at least three different woods




The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:

www.mahjonggtheartof thegame.com

To order it click here:


or here from Amazon




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From time to time we come across a set with great history. The other day I met a lovely lady named Mim whose family has owned this F. Ad. Richter set ever since they lived in Europe in the 1920s. Mim played with this set when she was a little girl, and when she moved into a retirement community a few years ago, she brought this set with her. The set has been a treasured possession for her for about 90 years. The pieces are still in the original cardboard box, four big "drawers" for the suits, Honors and Flowers, with the counters in smaller boxes forming the bottom layer. And many wonderful memories are associated with this box of 144 special tiles.

Richter was a manufacturer in Germany in those early days, and its designs are sophisticated and unusual, even in this simple wooden set. There is a special look to their images, all quite different from what we normally see. It seems the designers were given artistic freedom, and all suits, but especially the Craks and Bams, have their own style.  Even the letters and numbers have their own look, inspired by German lettering. Interestingly, even though Joseph Babcock gets credit for marketing the game in the 1920s, Richter was involved with the game years before. The story about Babcock is that he learned the game in 1917, but according to CHarli, Richter sent someone to China in 1916, during the First World War, to study the game, and the company started making sets soon thereafter, probably the first one to make them for international sale.

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As you can see here, there is a great deal of flair, even in the Winds which are quite unique in their appearance. There is a real Germanic look to the letters. The Red and Green Dragons face forward, looking directly at the viewer.


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The Dots have a very detailed One Dot, evolving into simpler designs, but still featuring the numbers with that same Germanic style.


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The Craks almost seem to leap out of the drawer!

To me, they resemble these photos by Eadward Muybridge from the late 1800s.

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But look at these designs! The Bams are fabulous. Note how the diagonal of the One Bam bird almost "morphs" into the 2 Bam bamboo shoot and into the 3 Bam. Notice how the 8 Bams altho they do look a bit like other 8 Bams, actually have four vertical stalks, two long and two short, and four short diagonals. The 5 Bams and 9 Bams are real standouts.



The last drawers that contain the wooden counters


IMG_1660and the Wind indicators, (apologies in this photograph the S is upside down).

I asked a graphic designer to tell us about the typeface used. I thought it was quite unusual, and this is what he said:

"The typography or “typeface” of the numerals on the Dots and Dragons of this set by Richter are noteworthy. While the lower numbers and the 8 are what is called a basic “Gothic style,” the “6”, “7” and “9” are in a distinctive calligraphic font which was very popular in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s called Fraktur. Basically, think of The New York Times or the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for the City of Frankfort which is still in circulation—their banners are in this font. See the example below.

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Fraktur fell out of favor in Germany bigtime after WWII but what is so delightful, it’s calligraphic numerals look somewhat “Chinese,” and ultimately they would evolve into what I call a variation of the ubiquitous “Chop Suey Fonts” used on countless Chinese Restaurant signs and menus to this day. Indeed, check out Pizzadude’s Chinese Takeaway, a contemporary “ethnic” font used now.

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Germany, was barred by the 1918 Versaillles Treaty from trade with China (indeed Britain and France stripped all of Germany’s Chinese Colonies and gave them to Japan—whether or not that was a good thing is for historians to debate).  At any rate, could it be that the Germans, who were not allowed access to the flood of imported Chinese Mah Jong sets in Europe, were then forced to come up with their own inventive designs for this game, sui generis? Without making too much about it, I think this is the case. Certainly one could argue no one came up with more smartly designed tiles and boxes than the Germans did in the twenties and early 30’s—whether or not their sets were made of Mother-Of Pearl, bone or of "stone" by Richter.

The numerals on this charming German wooden set can be seen as a small but further  example of the flowering of German ingenuity regarding Mah Jong.  It’s an almost “transitional” set to the Western Market. The Mah-JonggTM Sales Company, and their desire for continuity and control of the market had little tolerance for delightful quirkiness such as this. The exotic-pseudo yet very endearing “Chinese” font of this German set would have no place in Mr. Babcock’s world. "

The set came with the original paperwork



IMG_1669and the old typed instructions from the 1920s that were added to make scoring and playing easier.

Many thanks to Mim for sharing this Mahjong Treasure with us all.




The set continues to delight, as often some of these paper and wood or simple wood sets do. Note the unusual design of the Bams and Dots. Some numbers on the Craks have a little twist too, as seen on the 7. The Red and Green Dragons also have a bit of flair.

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DSC_0884 This wood set has printed lithography "tile"faces glued onto the wood.  It is hard to compete with the delightful One Dot and One Bam, but the Flowers on this set do hold their own, although they are not typical of the flowers associated with China. You will notice the top row has Chinese numbers placed on the top on the 1 Flower, but hidden lower down on the others, almost looking like part of the design. The flowers are a chrysanthemum, iris, peony, and poppy. The birds probably are a crane, swallow, vulture, and duck. It was just suggested by  a reader the bird on tile 3 might be a cormorant, which ties in nicely with Chinese life and fishing practices.


Above is a photo taken from Wikipedia showing a Chinese fisherman and his cormorants.

Click here for more from Wikipedia

A beautiful article on cormorant fishing can be found in The Atlantic magazine.



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This is a fabulous French wooden Mahjong set by Arkmel. The design of the box is delightful, with a center logo which somewhat resembles a stylized eye. The wonderful lizard will reappear on the One Dots. The set is made of simple small pieces of wood with paper decals.



Enjoy the One Dot and One Bam. How delightful are they? More tomorrow!

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This a a rarely seen wood set made for Murok in Canada. You can see the unusual arrangements of Bams and the Dots; often these design details are what makes the sets appealing. The colors are also different.



Isn't this dragon wonderful?!?



Obviously the company loved the dragon too!



There were many incorrect beliefs about the origins of the game, and perhaps some of these were used to help promote the game. This pamphlet is an amusing example of the types of rule books that accompanied games.