Category Archives: History

Mah-jong, yet another Twenties’ fad

When Buddha plays Mah Jong‘ by Jose Maria Lucchesi, published by Max Eschig (Paris, 1926). The cover is not signed, but was probably designed by Gaston Girbal.

The drawing of the laughing Buddha holding a domino in his hand, gives us reason to believe that the illustrator didn’t know how a game of mah-jong looked like. At that time, in the mid-twenties, the mah-jong was still a novelty in France and reserved for the very rich.

‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ by R. Penso, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

On the cover of ‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ Clérice shows that he had a better understanding of the tile-based game. Mah-jong commonly involves four players and 144 tiles divided into categories such as flowers, bamboo, winds, dragons and seasons. In those days, the tiles were beautifully marked with intricate and colourful designs and sold in elaborately carved oriental drawer boxes.

‘Mah-Jong’ by Jára Beneš, published by Wiener Boheme Verlag (Wien, 1924). Unknown illustrator.

The French Vogue from January 1924 lyrically introduced the mysterious oriental game to its readers: “The dizzying smell of sandalwood, that one inhales on the banks of the large rivers running through the vast empire of the rising sun, is enclosed in these little dominoes of ivory and bamboo like in a breathtaking incense burner.”

“The origins of the game” Vogue continued are lost in the mysterious Chinese night”. Indeed, although the history of mah-jong is contested, it is generally accepted that the game evolved in China somewhere in the mid or late 1800s. There it was primarily a gambling game, often played for very high stakes. Westerners first saw the game in Shanghai and Macau. It was then introduced in America and —with a bit of commercial push and marketing flair— it became a craze in the early 1920s. The gambling though was left out. And also, applying the commercial axiom never to sell complicated things, the rules  were simplified.  From there on it arrived in Europe.

But Vogue concocted a more exciting ‘history‘ to charm its snobbish readers: “For centuries, this scholarly distraction was a privilege for the sumptuous Chinese court and it never went beyond the golden walls of the imperial residence. Only the emperor, the empress, the princes, princesses and their immediate entourage had the right to take out of the priceless boxes, the prodigious little tiles decorated with mysterious signs which allowed them to spend unforgettable hours.”

A Mah-jong table. Vogue, January 1, 1924.

Imagine that you were a fashionable upper-class Parisienne who wanted to entertain and surprise her guests, wouldn’t you rush to the better shops to buy a luxurious set of mah-jong? It would hurt your wallet a bit though. Even the high-end Vogue marked a mah-jong set as expensive: “Its only disadvantage is its price. But for the lovers of the latest fashion and the newest thrill, certainly a must.” A set costed between 650 and 2.000 francs, the present-day equivalent of about 600 to 1.800 €. That was because traditional mah-jong sets were handcrafted out of the bleached shin bones of cows, or out of ivory. The illustrations on the tiles were also carved and coloured by hand. And of course you couldn’t play mah-jong at an ordinary table. You had to buy “a black lacquered wooden table with a leather top preferably with racks on the side.”

A game of Mah-jong between Jeanne Saint-Bonnet and the French actor Max Dearly. Publicity by Kirby, Beard & C°, Paris in Les Modes, December 1924.

Soon the mah-jong game would become much cheaper as synthetic materials were used and the drawings were stamped on the pieces rather than handcrafted. In December 1924 mah-jong sets were already sold in Paris for 100 francs by Kirby, Beard & C° a dramatic price drop, though still a great expense for the middle class.

‘Mah-Jongg Blues’ by Stuart Dunbar and Lester Stevens, published by Tees (San Francisco, 1922).

From 1920 on, as the craze started in the US,  Abercrombie & Fitch was the first company to sell mah-jong sets. To be able to serve their customers they sent scouts to China to buy as much sets as possible. At a certain point the demand was so high that cattle shinbones were sent to China to be crafted into more sets.

‘Since Ma is playing Mah Jong’ by Billy Rose & Con Condrad, published by Witmark & Sons (New York, 1924)

Mah-jong was mostly played by women, such as illustrated by Eddie Cantor with his popular song ‘Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong’. The song has offensive racial language and makes fun of a housewife neglecting her chores because she is addicted to the game.

There is a perfect scene to conclude this post. It is from the opening of Ang Lee’s film ‘Lust, Caution‘, an espionage thriller set in Shanghai during WWII. Watch how the quickness of the game movements follows the pace of the conversation between the four ladies. You’ll certainly miss a subtitle or two!


Lucky Stars: Nénette & Rintintin

La Polka de Nénette et Rintintin‘ by H. Morisson, published by Louis Aerts (Paris, sd).

Nénette and Rintintin were tiny yarn dolls that took Paris by storm in 1918. Parisian ladies would pin them on their bodice as mascots to protect them from the bombs and shells. Men hung the two small talismans on their watch chain and soldiers would keep them in their knapsack. As is often the case with fetishes, the superstition was conditional: it would ward off danger only if the charming little dolls had been given, exchanged or received, but not purchased.

Guillaume Apollinaire described the Nénette and Rintintin craze in august 1918: Talismans and amulets have always existed and will always exist. Nénette and Rintintin are a helpful kind of deities in whom the midinettes have put their trust since the beginning of the war; but the cult became widespread only recently, since circumstances have been favourable to its development. It is perhaps the first time that, since Ariadne’s thread, man has put his trust in a few strands of wool, thread or silk. … Nénette and Rintintin are the first gods born in the 20th century.”

The craze in Paris did not last long (after about three months the frenzy was largely over), but the popularity of Nénette and Rintintin knew no borders.

A photo-story in ‘Popular Mechanics Magazine’ 1918, volume 30.

The inspiration for the mascots were two dolls made by the illustrator Poulbot. Francisque Poulbot was famous for his drawings of the street kids of Montmartre. In 1913 he also designed two porcelain dolls, called Nénette and Rintintin as a Christmas novelty for the Magasins du Louvre.

Advert for Nénette et Rintintin dolls in ‘Excelsior, journal illustré quotidien’ – May 26th 1918.

Only a few of these dolls in porcelain were produced. The boy was called Nénette, which is a female nickname, but it was what Poulbot’s wife lovingly called him — he in turn called her Rintintin. At the start of 1914 the catalogues of the large Parisian department stores featured these dolls. At that time, most of the toys and dolls on the market in France were of German manufacturing. Poulbot argued that these had ‘silly looks and oakum wigs‘ and with his two little dolls he wanted to offer a French, more realistic alternative.

The Poulbot dolls as sold Au Bon Marché in 1914. Source: youtube, Seminar on ‘Poulbot – Artist and Humanitarian‘.

It wasn’t a big commercial succes: Poulbot’s dolls were only on the market for a year and the production was halted during the war. But the names of the  dolls outlived their commercial failure, and were generously given to the home-made woollen figurines. Albeit the names of the boy and girl were switched.

Drawing by Poulbot of a girl playing with Rintintin and Nénette. “La Baïonette” July 1918.

The craze in the spring and summer of 1918 took all forms: cheap woollen dolls were sold in haberdashery shops, lockets and small jewels were designed around the two heroes, and of course they covered the pages of many newspapers and magazines. There were also numerous postcard series published with the adventures of the mascots.
As you would expect, Nénette and Rintintin also have set foot in our sheet music collection. It is proof of their popularity that songs were written about them and tunes composed in their honour. Not only in France, but also in Algeria…

‘Nénette et Rintintin’ by F. Gaillard, published by S. Léon (Alger, sd).

in The Netherlands…

‘C’est Nénette et Rintintin’ by Armand Haagman, published by B. H. Smit (Amsterdam, sd).

and in Switzerland.

'Nénette et Rintintin' waltz by A. Joly. Illustrated sheet music cover
Nénette et Rintintin‘ waltz composed by A. Joly and published by A. Emch (Montreux, s.d.). Illustrator unknown.

To conclude this lucky post, we found a very short British Pathé news reel buried in the myriads of Youtube films.  A souvenir of the once internationally renowned Nénette et Rintintin…

Lucies in the sky with lots of diamonds

‘Vers l’Azur’ by Arthur Laurent & Alphonse Fivet, illustrated by V. Valéry (unknown publisher, place & date).

There’s no shame in recycling a good idea, the Belgian illustrator Valéry must have thought. We’ve found just the postcards that most likely inspired his imagination for drawing the cover of the Vers l’Azur waltz…

Viennese postcards, sold in France.

In 1784, one year after the first free flight with human passengers, Joseph Montgolfier launched a tethered balloon in Paris, which went higher than the highest building. Three ladies formed the gallant crew: Marquise de Montalembert, Countess Podenas, and Mademoiselle de Lagarde. They were the first three women to make a voyage into the sky. From then on, for over a century, women were piloting balloons.
But after the Franco-Prussian war, the role of women in French society became more than ever restricted to being a wife and mother. Flying aerostats wasn’t a sport for them and was claimed as an exclusive male activity. Nevertheless some female aficionados of the sport persisted, albeit discredited by most of their male counterparts. One of them was Camille du Gast, a Belle Epoque singer and daredevil sportswoman who made balloon trips at the end of the 19th century.

The real inspiration for the three female aeronautics on the post cards was the French Marie Surcouf and her friends. The same year one of the postcards was stamped, they had founded the first female aeronautical club in 1909. Marie’s father was an industrialist who owned a factory for making hot air balloons. She married Edouard Surcouf, an engineer and collaborator of her father. He later took over his father in law’s firm and started building large air ships. Marie herself was also an aeronautics enthusiast. For years she urged aero clubs to grant women the same rights as the male pilots. Unsuccessful in her quest, she decided to found Stella, a female aeronautical club in 1909. The club promoted flying in hot air balloons for women, which led to the recognition of women as competent aeronautic professionals.

Three ‘Stelliennes’ on board of Les Bleuets during their flowered air festival at St. Cloud Paris, in 1909. On the right Mme Surcouf, the pilot of the hot air balloon. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

The French newspaper Le Figaro of June 17th, 1909 gives us an impression of the first flowered air festival organised by Les Stelliennes, the female members of Stella. From a male perspective, sure enough:

“In the park on the slopes of St. Cloud, a highly elegant crowd of guests arrived. Soon, the park, already adorned by greenery and baskets, became one lovely garland of women dressed in white, pink, mauve and blue. The six balloons, deliciously decorated with flowers of which they bore the name, swayed captive waiting for the departure … Among the passengers were a lot of newcomers, and their little hearts started to beat very fast because of a sudden gust of wind; but they were still very skilful, very brave, and not one, in spite of the anxieties expressed by some of their friends, did give up the aerial excursion.

The graceful Stelliennes delightedly scattered flowers on the audience. The first balloon to leave in a cloud of scented petals, was the balloon called ‘Les Bleuets’ (The Cornflowers). It carried on board three ladies. One of them was Mrs Surcouf, president of the Stella and pilot of the balloon.”

Although the passengers in the other five balloons were women, they were piloted by men, because at that time only Mme Surcouf was a qualified pilot.
Stella clearly had a feminist mark: men were accepted as members but they were excluded from the management of the club.

The board of directors of Stella. Second from left: Marie Surcouf. Fifth from left: Mme Louis Bleriot. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

A picture of the board of directors shows five bold ladies, some of them with a huge nest of flowers on their lavishly decorated hat. They also look very well-to-do, which of course they were, just like all the members. A lot of them belonged to the aristocracy. Amongst them was the wife of Louis Blériot, famous for the first air-plane flight across the English Channel.

Members of the Stella Club, with amongst them Mme Blériot. (Source: Library of Congress.)

Although being feminists, the members of Stella also enjoyed very ladylike things. They organised artistic lyrical evenings or tea parties called Stella-Thé’s. The Stelliennes also embroidered a flag for the military aviation. It was solemnly handed over in 1912 when the first five squadrons were created to form the French Air Force (the oldest air force in the world).

Mme Surcouf, president of the ‘Stella’, presents an embroidered flag to the Aeronautique Militaire. 1912 . (source: www.gallica.fr)

The Stelliennes didn’t go as far as the Australian-born Muriel Matters. In 1909 —the same year Stella was founded— Muriel took to the skies in an airship and scattered campaign leaflets over London, demanding Votes for Women.

Muriel Matters in an airship campaigning for Women Votes.

Stella stopped its activities with the First World War. It would take until 1971 before another French association of women pilots was founded.

In the sixties, Marilyn and Florence made a musical attempt at female ballooning, together with the other aeronautics of the 5th Dimension. Much to (y)our delight!


This article is dedicated to Zaza, if not a feminist (yet) at least the most beautiful baby in the world.