I was just looking through my files and found this very interesting (at least it is to me!) article about the history of Jokers in Mah Jongg. People are always asking if I can tell how old their set might be. When asked this question the first thing I want to know is if your set has “natural Jokers.” Of course, that is not the only determiner of the age of a set – and, as you will read in this article, it is not always accurate – but it is a good place to start.
Unfortunately, I have no idea who wrote the following article or where it was published. If anyone knows, please email me so that I can give it the appropriate credit. In the meantime, enjoy this article on the history of Jokers.
“Before 1961, there were no Jokers. Flowers were wild, and the number of Flowers fluctuated between 8 and 24. Joker tiles were introduced into the American game in 1961. The number of Flowers and Jokers fluctuated for several years, finally stabilizing at 8F/8J ten years later, in the 1971-72 card.
The NMJL varied the number of Flowers and Jokers for several decades early in the league’s history. People had to cobble together sets to make the number of Flowers required.
In the 1920’s, the standard Mah Jongg set came with 8 Flowers and 0 Jokers (8F/0J). From the founding of the National Mah Jongg League in 1937, the NMJL treated Flowers as Jokers (wild Flowers). Beginning with the 1943 card, more Flowers were added to increase the luck ratio and to allow for more challenging hands.
Some, but certainly not all, American Mah Jongg sets came with Jokers before the NMJL first started requiring them in 1960-61. The number of Flowers and Jokers in a set isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of the exact date of manufacture of an American set, but an understanding of the NMJL’s fluctuating use of Flowers and Jokers does give some clues.
If you have a set with only 2 natural jokers but 14 Flowers, it was probably made in America in the early 1960’s. Domestic set manufacturing began in the1920s and continued into the 1960s. At some point, though, cheaper Chinese imports caused all the American manufacturers to go out of business. Those Chinese companies aren’t always sure what the NMJL requires, so Chinese sets made today often come with extra Flowers and jokers (more than 8F/8J).”
The other day I posted a wonderful image that had come from Toby Salk‘s email – and a number of you wondered where she could have found such a fabulous picture. Well, the mystery is solved thanks to the marvelous Annelise Heinz, who is definitely an authority when it comes to American culture and Mah Jongg.
Annelise sent me an email with the following message: “…this image is actually from my article, “Performing Mahjong in the 1920s: White Women, Chinese Americans, and the Fear of Cultural Seduction,” which was published in 2016 in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. Isn’t it an amazing image?? I begin the article by talking about the meaning we can draw from it, in the context of the 1920s mahjong fad.”
If you are interested in reading this article, head on over to Annelise’s website where you will find a link to the article. From there, you can access the article at no cost if you are using a computer at a library that has a subscription to the database, or you can sign up for a 2-week trial and access it for free. If none of this works for you, Annelise is kind enough to let us contact her directly via the website and she will share a pdf.
Our very dear friend, Toby Salk, always finds the best Mah Jongg images. I know you are going to love this one – thanks, Toby!