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Mahjong: An Ancient Chinese Game that Became a Roaring Twenties Fad

1900s | January 10, 2019

Beach and bathing scenes American women playing mah-jongg in the water - 1924 - Vintage property of ullstein bild. Source: (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The 1920s saw the rise of several entertainment fads. Radio and magazines with national distribution helped to introduce fad trends to the farthest reaches of the United States. One such fad, however, traces its origins to faraway China and its roots go back several centuries. The ancient Chinese game of Mahjong swept through the U.S. in the twenties and spawned an interesting all things Chinese. 

The first Abercrombie & Fitch store. Source: (pinterest.com)

The First Mahjong Games in the U.S. were sold by Abercrombie & Finch

Yes, that's Abercrombie & Fitch! The retailer and outfitter, which was founded in 1892, sold imported mahjong tile sets beginning in 1920 from its stores in New York City and elsewhere. When the mahjong craze took off, the retailer couldn’t keep the game on the store shelves. The company’s co-owner, Ezra Fitch, sent buyers to remote Chinese villages to buy up every mahjong game they could find to send back to Abercrombie & Fitch.  

Source: (michelleknowsantiques.com)

A Mahjong Rule Book Was Printed

Joseph P. Babcock, an employee for Standard Oil, learned to play mahjong while working in China. In 1920, he published a rule book for the game. He titled his book Rules of Mah-Jongg, but it became commonly called the “red book” after the color of its cover. Babcock simplified some of the traditional rules of the game to make it easier for Americans to learn, and more appealing to play. His book is widely credited with sparking the mahjong craze. 

Source: (herschelian.wordpress.com)

Mahjong is an Ancient Game

Mahjong is played by four people using a set of tiles, each with a Chinese symbol on it. A game of skill and strategy, Mahjong combines elements of chance with calculated strategy. In its traditional form, it can be rather complex. Variations of Mahjong may date back as much as 3,000 years, however, the game that became popular in the U.S. was modeled after a newer version of Mahjong that was probably developed around 1800. 

Source: (blogs.weta.org)

Because of Mahjong, Americans Hungered for all Things Chinese

Mahjong was foreign and exotic. Players of the game in the United States felt a sort of connection to and fascination with the Chinese culture as a result of playing Mahjong. People dress in traditional Chinese costumes to play the game and served traditional Chinese food at their Mahjong parties. Mahjong was often promoted as a game for intellectuals, so players read up on Chinese culture and learned about important figures in China’s history, such as Confucius, so they could sound brainy in front of their Mahjong buddies. 

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Mahjong Boosted the Chinese Economy

During its heyday in the 1920s, mahjong tile sets became the sixth-biggest export from China. The mahjong fad helped to boost China’s economy that was weak in the twenties. Mahjong sets imported to the United States represented different price points. Some of the tile sets demonstrated a high degree of craftsmanship and artistry that Americans found appealing. Much of the draw of the game was the art and symbols painted on the tiles. 

A mahjong app. Source: (bigtechquestion.com)

In the 1930s, Mahjong fell out of Fashion

As with all fads, the popularity of Mahjong began to fall in the 1930s and the trend died out. But it never completely faded away. Among two groups…Chinese immigrants and Jewish families…the game of Mahjong remained popular. After Mao’s Cultural Revolution that started in 1966, Mahjong was banned in China. As a result, the game experienced a resurgence in popularity in other parts of the world. Thanks to the electronic version of the game and smartphone apps, Mahjong is now being played by a whole new generation of fans. 

Tags: the mahjong craze, game fads of the 1920s, Cina, Mahjong game

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.