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.
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.
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.
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 They were originally made from bone and bamboo.
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.
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.
While 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.)