Mah-jongg's precursors may be centuries old, but the game most Americans know dates back only about 150 years. Around 1846, a servant of the Chinese emperor combined the rules of popular card games of the time, and replaced cards with tiles to create mah-jongg. The name itself means sparrows--an allusion to the pictures of birds often engraved on the tiles.
The advent of mah-jongg coincided with China's opening to foreign traders, after the First Opium War (1837-1842). One American businessman, Joseph Babcock, traveled to China on behalf of the Standard Oil Company in 1912 and brought the game back to America. He changed the numbers on the tiles to numerals with which Americans are familiar (1, 2, 3, etc.) and by 1920, Abercrombie and Fitch, then a sporting and excursion goods store, was the first place to sell mah-jongg in America.
Throughout the 1920s, the game was a popular craze. Over time, to make the game more difficult and exciting, playing groups made up their own "table rules." As these homemade regulations became more complex and convoluted, players eventually became turned off by the game and the challenge of ever-changing rules. By the end of the decade, the mah-jongg fad had died.
This article written by Iris Wynne
Mah Jongg has made a comeback in the last few years. It is a game I believe is here to stay. There is the National Mah Jongg League that represents the US and Canada and is situated in New York City. They send out new Mah Jongg cards yearly. Each year the league changes the hands and rules to add more excitement and challenges to the game. I was lucky enough one year to visit the office. The woman informed me that they have requests for cards from around the world that cost around nine dollars. They also have a website that includes purchases such as Mah Jongg Sets, table covers , Mah Jongg Sweatshirts including Mah Jongg carry bags and many more items. They will even try to match up old Mah Jongg tiles that may have been misplaced.
Each year, proceeds from the sales of the Official Rule Cards go directly to charitable organizations across
the country. Some of the charities include Alzheimer's Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart and Diabetes Associations, the MS Society and many many more.
The League that once started with 32 members in the late thirties, now has over 350,000 members.
Old Mah Jongg sets have been past down over the years. I play with my grandmother's set and my great aunt's, which I switch periodically. It amazes me that my ancestors and their friends used the same Mah Jongg tiles through the years. (If only these sets could talk!)