Although some histories claim that Mah Jongg was a Chinese game invented by Confucius himself, many argue that there is not historical mention of the game until 1880 when Mah Jongg tiles began to be imported to Japan and Great Britain. Despite the games murky past, it is easy to pinpoint approximately when the game exploded on the American scene.
Joseph P. Babcock was the individual responsible for popularizing the game in the states. He started importing bulk sets around 1922. However, Babcock thought that in order to truly give the game appeal to an American public, he would need to greatly simply the existing rules. As a result of this tactic, many interesting aspects of the game were initially lost. Babcock’s mostly worked, and the game’s fame quickly spread. However, American’s heard rumors of the longer, more traditional form of the game, and many wanted as taste of that as well. So in an effort to increase the enjoyment and length of the game, embellishments were added over the years which included the addition of different “special hands” to existing Mah Jongg sets. Players enjoyed the artistry of their Mah Jongg tiles so much that embellishing tiles was almost as popular a hobby as the game itself.
However, in time this created some confusion. As different American version of the game continued to multiply, the traditional Chinese game was slowly fading. However, the fad began to fizzle quickly until 1935, when the National Mah Jongg League Inc. published a set of rules, thus unifying players and cutting down on confusion. The form which was established in 1935 is still a far cry from the original Chinese form, however.
The version of Mah Jongg played in Britain, however, still resembles more closely the original Chinese form. Over time it became considered that British players were playing the “real” game of Mah Jongg and that Americans were playing a simplified, Americanized version. Differences in American and British Mah Jongg still exists today.