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Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

A Mysterious Mah-Jongg Tile From New York's Past

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Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

People have found some weird things inside walls over the years, from mummified babies to outrageously rare artwork. Other times, remodeling projects reveal nothing but mouse carcasses or a bunch of dust. This mah-jongg tile, found inside the wall of a former tenement building in New York City, might not seem fascinating at first. But it has an interesting story to tell about the many waves of immigrants that surged into New York during the 20th century.

The piece was found during a historical restoration project inside 103 Orchard Street, a building on New York’s Lower East Side that is owned by the Tenement Museum. The tile emerged when workers sifted through the debris in the building’s third floor. Just one of many unexpected artifacts found inside the building’s walls, it’s an example of the kind of object historians love—a little slice of everyday life.

Though the address 103 Orchard has remained the same since the building was first constructed in 1888, the building and the neighborhood itself changed dramatically over the years. Around the time the building went up, the neighborhood was home to Italian and Jewish immigrants, followed by waves of Puerto Rican immigrants and then Chinese immigrants. Over the years, over 10,000 people lived inside the building’s 15 apartments, a testament to the flows of United States immigration in the 20th century.

You might think that the piece belonged to a family like the Wongs, Chinese Americans who lived in one of the apartments inside 103 Orchard starting in the late 1960s. But it could also have been owned by one of the Jewish families who lived inside the apartment building.

The mystery of the mah–jongg piece reflects the enigma of mah–jongg itself. It’s not exactly clear when the game was invented, or even how it’s properly spelled. (Merriam-Webster prefers mah-jongg.) What is certain is that after gaining popularity in China it came to the United States alongside Chinese immigrants in the 1920s. Despite harsh anti-Chinese laws that essentially banned Chinese immigration, many Chinese people risked deportation and came to the U.S. anyway, sporting false ID papers and, apparently, some mah–jongg sets.

As the game became more popular, it started to show up in department stores like Abercrombie & Fitch. The future purveyor of apparel for shirtless male models (which has been around since 1892) was the first U.S. company to offer the game, importing and selling over 40,000 sets in a single decade.

Fred Astaire and his sister Adele playing mah-jongg in 1926. Image credit: Getty Images

 
Mah–jongg also became a beloved game among Jewish women. For a while, the game was so popular that you could find mah-jongg books, magazines, clubs, and merchandise seemingly everywhere. Scholars believe that the game not only reflects globalization and immigration, but appealed to Jewish immigrant women as a way to build and keep social networks.

Though primarily played by wealthy and suburban Jewish women, it was popular enough that it very well could have been adopted in tenements, too. The days of mah-jongg–related movies and even ballets is long gone, but it’s actually become more popular in recent years, especially among younger Jewish women eager to learn the game their grandmas loved.

Whether the piece was owned by Chinese or Jewish immigrants, it shows how pastimes and traditions can cross-pollinate—and how a single building can contain remnants of multi-layered histories. And if you want to explore 103 Orchard for yourself, you’ll get a chance this summer, when the Tenement Museum opens a new exhibit there.

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Courtesy Ben Barrett-Forrest
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Learn All About Fonts by Playing With These Poker Cards
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Courtesy Ben Barrett-Forrest

Want to learn about fonts? Try playing poker with the Font Deck, a pack of cards designed to help users learn the finer points of typography and font design.

The deck is the work of Canadian designer Ben Barrett-Forrest, who runs a graphic design studio based out of Ontario and the Yukon. In 2014, Barrett-Forrest designed the precursor to the Font Deck, a product called the Design Deck that aimed to teach users about the ins and outs of graphic design. Some of the Design Deck cards feature typography lessons, but the Font Deck—available for $17 a deck on Barrett-Forrest’s website or on Kickstarter—gives the topic a deeper dive.

A male hand holds fanned-out cards next to a Font Deck box and a stack of playing cards.
Courtesy Ben Barrett-Forrest

The deck includes topics like letter anatomy, old style typefaces, the difference between a font and a typeface, and profiles of specific typefaces, like Helvetica. The cards themselves are printed by the same company that makes popular playing cards like Bicycle and Bee, so they’re gambling ready, if you feel like betting your fortune on that slab serif card.

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Dungeons & Dragons Gets a Digital Makeover
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iStock

Since the 1970s, players have been constructing elaborate campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons using nothing but paper, pencils, rule books, and 20-sided dice. That simple formula has made D&D the quintessential role-playing game, but the game's publisher thinks it can be improved with a few 21st-century updates. As The Verge reports, Wizards of the Coast is launching a digital toolset meant to enhance the gaming experience.

The tool, called D&D Beyond, isn’t meant to be a replacement for face-to-face gameplay. Rather, it’s designed to save players time and energy that could be better spent developing characters or battling orcs. The resource includes a fifth-edition rule book users can search by keyword. At the start of a new campaign, they can build monsters and characters within the program. And players don’t need to worry about forgetting to bring their notes to a quest—D&D Beyond keeps track of information like items and spells in one convenient location.

"D&D Beyond speaks to the way gamers are able to blend digital tools with the fun of storytelling around the table with your friends,” Nathan Stewart, senior director of Dungeons & Dragons, said in a statement when the concept was first announced. "These tools represent a way forward for D&D.”

This isn’t the first attempt to bring D&D into the digital age; videogames inspired by the fictional world have been produced since the 1980s. Unlike those titles, though, D&D Beyond will still highlight the imagination-fueled role-playing aspect of the game when it launches August 15.

[h/t The Verge]

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