Loving Mah Jongg

 The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco—one of my favorite museums—has a terrific Mah Jongg show running through October 28. You’ll learn all about the traditions, history and meaning of the game in Jewish American culture. It’s a great show. Go see it!

Mah Jongg first arrived in the United States about 1920 with Joseph Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Company in Shanghai. It became very popular among upper class women who coveted all things Chinese as exotic and sophisticated.

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Women playing Mah Jong in Shanghai in the 1930’s.

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Women playing Mah Jong in the U.S. in 1922. Photo via Library of Congress

 Jewish American women soon followed their non-Jewish counterparts and began playing Mah Jongg too. By identifying themselves with this new leisure class they could feel fully ensconced in American upper middle class society and culture.

I love these old photos of Jewish women playing Mah Jongg.

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Mah-Jong at bathing beach in 1924. Photo via Library of Congress

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Mah Jong at the Club-House of the Century Village Retirement Community in 1973. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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Mah Jong at the Club-House of the Century Village Retirement Community in 1973. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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Mah Jong at the Club-House of the Century Village Retirement Community in 1973. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

I just watched Dirty Dancing with my daughter the other day. I bet Marjorie Houseman (Baby’s mother) played Mah Jongg at Kellerman’s Resort.

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Still from the film ”Dirty Dancing.” Photo via USA Today

 I’m crazy about Mah Jongg tiles. I love the intricate designs and the look and feel of the tiles. They were originally made from bone and bamboo.

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Photo courtesy of Mahjong Treasures

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Photo courtesy of MahJong Treasures

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Photo courtesy of MahJong Treasures

Then, in the 1930s, they were made out of Bakelite—a plastic that could not be melted down once shaped. Leo Baekeland, a chemist, invented Bakelite in the early 1900s. He was kind of like the father of plastics. During the Depression, Bakelite was easy to make, and cheap. It could be made in an array of colors too.

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Photo courtesy of MahJong Treasures

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Photo courtesy of MahJongg Treasures

Do you remember Bakelite jewelry? You can still find some great pieces in vintage stores. Carolina Herrera featured Bakelite bracelets on her models in her 2012 collection. Iris Apfel always looks so chic when she wears her Bakelite jewelry. Bakelite jewelry is making a comeback. So is Mah Jongg.

bakelite_bracelets_40sWhile you’re at the exhibit, be sure to check out the CJM gift shop! They’re featuring some really cool Mah Jongg accessories like bracelets, necklaces, coasters, tote bags and more (see below). I had the opportunity to collaborate on sourcing some of the pieces. It was so much fun to be involved in this project! (If you can’t get to the museum you can browse the shop online here.)

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Enjoy!

XO

 

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7 Comments on Loving Mah Jongg

  1. Fran
    July 28, 2014 at 12:13 am (4 years ago)

    Fabulous! Can’t wait to go see it!thankyou for the heads up!

    Reply
    • Julie Levine
      July 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm (4 years ago)

      You are welcome!

      Reply
  2. Marci
    July 28, 2014 at 6:05 am (4 years ago)

    I’m going to see it when we get back from our trip with some of my mah jongg friends. Love the game!

    Reply
    • Julie Levine
      July 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm (4 years ago)

      Great. You can also reserve ahead of time and play Mah Jongg right in the middle of the exhibit.

      Reply
  3. diane
    July 28, 2014 at 12:05 pm (4 years ago)

    beautiful. Wish i lived closer and could see the exhibition.

    Reply
  4. tammy
    July 28, 2014 at 2:01 pm (4 years ago)

    just started playing the game this year. looks like a great exhibit; i never really knew the history of the game. guess i now need to plan a trip to san francisco!!!

    Reply
    • Julie Levine
      July 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm (4 years ago)

      Come visit!! XO

      Reply

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