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By Tom Sloper (湯姆 斯洛珀)
June 22, The Year Of The Horse 馬

Column #610

This week I want to share a description of the typical 1920s bone-and-bamboo mah-jongg set in the five-drawer wooden box, like the one pictured below.

Tiles: Constructed of bone on one side and bamboo on the other. The bone is often mistaken for ivory, but almost never is. The tiles were carved and painted by hand in China. There are 148 tiles; the 108 suit tiles (1-9 in 3 suits), plus the winds and dragons and 8 flowers, and 4 extra blanks. There are 8 blank tiles in all (the white dragon was blank in those days).

Box: Constructed of wood, usually a 5-drawer cabinet: 4 drawers for tiles, and the bottom drawer to contain the extra 4 blank tiles plus all sticks, dice, and wind indicators, with room for the instruction booklet. The box front slides up and off to reveal the drawers. The box is usually dressed with brass corners and either a brass handle or a carved wooden handle. The box front usually has some Chinese character carved in the front. The decoration details can vary greatly.

Other bits: The typical set came with bone sticks in four denominations (exchanged when scoring -- think poker chips), a dice coffin, a mingg, and an instruction booklet. The dice coffin is a small carved wooden box containing 3 or 4 tiny hand carved bone dice. The coffin is supposed to come with a sliding wooden lid. The mingg is a cylindrical container made of bone. Inside the mingg are four wind indicators (bone discs marked with the Chinese characters for east, south, west, and north), and a disc-shaped bone lid that fits snugly on the cylinder. The booklet varies depending on the set's manufacturer or distributor. J.P. Babcock, who is responsible for introducing mah-jongg (and naming it "mah-jongg"), included his own "little red book" in the sets he commissioned.

Value: 1920s boxed sets like this usually go for around US$100 but can vary in value from $50-600, depending on completeness, condition, and craftsmanship (artistry). Missing parts, ugly Haversian streaks? Worn, dirty, coming apart, broken, musty smelling? Reduce value.

Because this column is necessarily short, I might at some point supplement this column with an FAQ on the subject. Until then, if you want to see more photos of such sets, have a look at (find the Museum link).

For more detail on distinguishing characteristics of 1920s sets, see FAQ 7A.


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