When Going Shoe Shopping was a Good Way to Die…

For most of us, a trip to the shoe store is a thoroughly mundane experience. You browse the shelves for a style you like, check the rows of boxes below to see if it’s available in your size, and ring the box through at the front counter. If the store is a more full-service establishment, an employee might first measure your feet using a chrome-plated contraption called a Brannock device and recommend an appropriate size. Once upon a time, however, buying shoes was considerably more exciting and ludicrously dangerous, and involved blasting both your feet and head with large amounts of radiation! This is the insane story of the Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope, perhaps the most ill-advised sales gimmick in history.

Throughout modern history, exciting new scientific discoveries have inspired brief but intense commercial manias, with entrepreneurs scrambling to apply said discoveries to all manner of consumer goods and services – sometimes with tragic results. Such was the case with Marie Curie’s 1898 discovery of the element Radium. Believing that the mysterious radioactive energy given off by Radium had health-giving powers, manufacturers incorporated the element into all manner of products, from luminous clock and watch dials to razor blades, cigarettes, cosmetics, condoms, and even Radium-infused water known as Radithor. As will surprise exactly no-one, most of these applications proved, shall we say, ill advised, with large numbers of Radium producers and consumers suffering burns, radiation poisoning, cancer, and even nastier afflictions due to over-exposure to radiation. For example, in 1932 American industrialist and athlete Eben Byers died of various radiation-induced cancers after consuming a whopping 1,400 doses of Radithor, while throughout the 1920s dozens of young women hired to paint luminous dials on clocks and watches slowly and succumbed to the effects of chronic Radium exposure – including their jawbones rotting and falling out – and for more on this cheery subject, please check our previous videos Glowing in the Dark – The Radium Girls and Does Anything Radioactive Actually Glow Bright Green?

A similar craze accompanied the discovery of x-rays, which occurred at around the same time. These indispensable fixtures of medical diagnostics were discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen, a physicist working at the Würzburg Physical Institute in Germany, while experimenting with a device known as a Crookes tube. Invented in the 1870s by British physicist William Crookes, Crookes or cathode-ray tubes were glass bulbs filled with low-pressure gas and fitted with metal electrodes. Passing high-voltage electricity through the electrodes produced strange patterns of coloured light within the tube, which scientists dubbed cathode rays.While investigating the properties of these mysterious rays, Röntgen noticed something odd: whenever he powered up his Crookes tube, a screen coated in fluorescent Barium Platinocyanide began to glow in the corner of his darkened laboratory. This was despite the fact that the tube was covered in thick black paper, which prevented any visible light from leaking out. After further experimentation, Röntgen discovered that whatever was causing the screen to glow could travel long distances and penetrate all but the densest materials, such as lead. Röntgen dubbed this mysterious form of energy “X-Rays”, after the mathematical symbol for “unknown quantity.” Six weeks later, after determining that x-rays could expose photographic film, Röntgen made medical history by taking the first x-ray photograph of the bones in his wife Anna Bertha’s hand. For the first time in history, doctors could peer under their patients’ skin without having to cut them open. However, the subject of this historic image was less enthusiastic. Upon seeing her own skeleton, Anna Bertha Röntgen reportedly exclaimed “I have seen my own death!”, ran from the room, and refused to take any further part in her husband’s research.

On December 28, 1895, Röntgen published his findings in a paper titled On a New Kind of Rays. Within months, the paper was translated into English and reprinted in Nature, Science, and dozens more scientific publications. Recognizing the enormous medical potential of X-rays, Röntgen refused to take out any patents, so that all of mankind could benefit from his discoveries. X-ray mania swept the globe, with thousands of inventors, scientists, and doctors scrambling to unlock the secrets and potential applications of this miraculous new form of energy.

At first X-ray images were obtained by exposing and developing photographic film. However, a simpler and more direct imaging method was soon invented. In 1896, Italian physicist Enrico Salvioni created the first fluoroscope, consisting of a cardboard screen coated in fluorescent chemicals – similar to the one Wilhelm Röntgen had used to discover X-rays the year before. To use this device, the body part to be imaged was placed between the X-ray tube and the screen, allowing the interior of the patient’s body to be seen in real-time. The term fluoroscope was coined the same year by legendary American inventor Thomas Edison, who refined the device via the use of a more sensitive calcium tungstanate coating.

While the early use of both fluoroscopes and conventional radiographs doubtless saved many lives, it was not long before the new technology began to claim casualties. Among the earliest victims was Clarence Dally, a glassblower and technician working at Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Harrison, New Jersey. Tasked with testing various designs of x-ray tubes and fluoroscopes, Dally exposed himself to large doses of x-rays for hours on end, and soon began displaying the classic symptoms of radiation overexposure: prematurely wrinkled skin, hair loss, and the red lesions of radiodermatitis. He eventually developed aggressive radiation-induced cancers, resulting in both his arms being amputated, before dying in 1904 at the age of 39 from metastatic skin cancer. Countless other early X-ray researchers and technicians would meet a similar fate. Among the first Americans to die of radiation sickness, Dally was eulogized by his employer as “a martyr to science.” However, Dally’s gruesome death deeply disturbed Edison, causing him to halt all research on X-rays and snap at a reporter:

Don’t talk to me about x-rays. I am afraid of them.”

But while the dangers posed by X-rays became increasingly well-known, they were soon overshadowed by the lives saved by the technology, especially during the First World War when portable X-ray machines were used to great effect to locate bullets and shrapnel embedded deep within soldiers’ bodies. This wartime success in turn inspired the application of X-rays to other fields of medicine and industry. And this brings us, at last, to the Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope.

There is considerable debate as to just who created the first shoe-fitting fluoroscope, with several inventors including Jacob J. Lowe, Matthew B. Adrian, and Clarence Karrer all claiming credit for the invention. What is known is that the idea of using X-rays to examine the fit of shoes had been around for some time, with the 1914 publication A Textbook of Military Hygiene and Sanitation featuring x-rays of feet in boots to illustrate proper and ill-fitting footwear. The most commonly-cited inventor of the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, Dr. Jacob Lowe, was a physician in Boston who used an X-ray fluoroscope to examine wounded soldiers’ feet without having to remove their boots. After the war, Lowe hit upon the idea of using a fluoroscope to help salesmen select proper-fitting footwear for customers, and in 1919 took out a patent for a device he called the Foot-O-Scope. In 1921, fellow American Matthew Adrian patented a similar device, while in 1924 inventors in England applied for and received a UK patent for what became known across the Pond as the Pedoscope – and before you start sniggering, that’s “pehd-oh-scope” from the Latin pes or “foot”, not “pee-doh-scope” from the Greek pais or “child”. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Within a decade, two companies had emerged as the leading manufacturers of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes: the Pedoscope Company – I hear you laughing – in the UK and X-Ray Shoe Fitter Inc. in the United States. These companies’ products were broadly similar, typically consisting of a tall metal cabinet covered in wood. The X-ray tube was contained in the base of the machine, above which was a short platform with a slot into which the shoe shop customer could insert their feet. At the top of the cabinet was the fluoroscope screen and a hooded viewing port, through which the customer could look to see the otherworldly spectacle of their foot bones within the outline of their shoes. Often multiple other viewing ports were also included, allowing the shoe salesman and a third curious onlooker such as the customer’s spouse, child, parent etc. to view the image simultaneously.

While the $900 price tag was steep for the 1920s and 30s, tens of thousands of shoe stores invested in the machines, recognizing the considerable publicity and credibility they could bring. The machines were touted as a sleek, modern, and scientific solution to the problem of poorly-fitting shoes – especially for children – with Jacob Lowe’s original ad copy for the Foot-O-Scope reading:

With this apparatus, a shoe merchant can positively assure his customers that they never need wear ill-fitting boots and shoes; that parents can visually assure themselves as to whether they are buying shoes for their boys and girls which will not injure and deform the sensitive bone joints.”

A later radio ad for Adrian-brand fluoroscopes was even more hyperbolic:

Every parent will want to hear this important news! Now, at last, you can be certain that your children’s foot health is not being jeopardized by improperly fitting shoes. STORE NAME is now featuring the new ADRIAN Special Fluoroscopic Shoe Fitting machine that gives you visual proof in a second that your children’s shoes fit. The ADRIAN Special Shoe Fitting machine has been awarded the famous PARENT’S MAGAZINE Seal of Commendation… a symbol of safety and quality to millions of parents all over America. If your children need new shoes, don’t buy their shoes blindly. Come in today, let us show you the new, scientific method of shoe fitting that careful parents prefer. STORE NAME invites all of you to visit us today for an interesting demonstration. We know that once you buy shoes that are scientifically fitted, you will shop at STORE NAME all of the time.”

Such advertisements preyed on parents’ timeless insecurities regarding their children’s health, subtly shaming them for not using the latest and most sophisticated shoe-fitting techniques. Other ads targeted children directly, encouraging them to badger their parents into buying them new shoes for the chance to try out the mesmerizing new machine Some corner stores who installed the machines even offered foot X-rays to children who bought 10 cents or more of candy. For, as Jacalyn Duffin and Charles Hayter write in their history Baring the Sole: the Rise and Fall of the Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope:

[The shoe-fitting fluoroscope] was as attractive and exciting to little customers as free balloons and all-day suckers. Seeing the greenish yellow image of our bones was great fun.”

This is especially disturbing considering that young children, whose cells are dividing at a prodigious rate, are around twice as sensitive to ionizing radiation as adults – and for more on that, please check out our previous video Would Cockroaches Actually Survive a Nuclear Apocalypse?

These sales tactics proved highly effective, for by the early 1950s there were nearly 10,000 units in the United States, 3,000 in the UK, and 1,000 in Canada. But while today the idea of casually blasting your body with potentially dangerous radiation for the sole purpose of having better-fitting shoes might seem like utter madness, at the time the machines were widely believed to be perfectly safe. Only after the Second World War, when the horrifying effects of the atomic bombs on the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became widely known, did people begin to recognize the potential health risks of radiation. It was also at this time that the first systematic studies were undertaken on the safety of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, with one of the most comprehensive being conducted in 1950 by Leon Lewis and Paul Caplan of the University of California Berkeley.

In their research, Lewis and Caplan examined 28 fluoroscopes and 77 shoe salesmen, using ionization chambers to measure the radiation dose rate at various positions inside and outside the machine and film-badge dosimeter to measure the cumulative radiation dose absorbed by the salesmen every week. What they found was disconcerting, to say the least. The radiation dose rate in the machine was found to vary from 248 milliröntgens per minute at the foot slot to 0.1 milliröntgens per minute at the eyepiece. For comparison, in 1949 the official recommended limit for cumulative radiation exposure was 300 milliröntgen per week – meaning that customers who used shoe-fitting fluoroscopes could receive nearly their entire weekly radiation dose in a single minute. Worse still, it was rare for a customer to try on only one pair of shoes, meaning most would receive multiple exposures per visit.

The good news is that most viewings lasted only around 20 seconds, with most of the radiation being absorbed by the customer’s feet, which are far more radiation-resistant than many other parts of the body. The bad news, however, is that while these machines were designed to be well-shielded with thick steel and lead plates, in many cases the shoe store owners removed or displaced this shielding in order to create a sharper image or reduce the weight of the unit. Consequently, many of these machines leaked – badly. Indeed, in certain shoe stores Lewis and Caplan measured dose rates as high as 60 milliröntgens per minute more than two metres away from the fluoroscope. As a result, shoe salesmen, who operated the machines day in day out for more than 40 hours per week, tended to absorb large cumulative radiation doses. Indeed, of the 77 salesmen examined in Lewis and Caplan’s study, 50 received around 10 milliröntgens per week while one received as many as 200 just from stray radiation leakage.

But while such studies laid bare the potential radiological risks posed by shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, no attempt was made to systematically examine the actual health effects of the machines. All we have are three anecdotal cases of shoe salesmen coming down with rare illnesses commonly associated with chronic radiation exposure: a severe radiation burn requiring amputation in 1950, a severe case of radiodermatitis in 1957, and a case of basal-cell carcinoma of the foot in 2004. In a recent article on shoe-fitting fluoroscopes by Marcia Wendorf, a writer for the website Interesting Engineering,Wendorf recalls suffering from brittle foot bones as an 8-year-old girl in 1958, leading to multiple recurring fractures. The brittleness was traced to her use of a shoe-fitting fluoroscope at a local store, which she would frequently spend her allowance money to use.

Despite these revelations and growing public suspicion towards radiation and nuclear power, shoe-fitting fluoroscopes persisted in shoe stores well into the 1970s. However, by the late 1950s the writing was already on the wall. In 1946, Massachusetts passed legislation ruling that shoe-fitting fluoroscopes could only be operated by a licensed physician, while in 1957 Pennsylvania became the first U.S. state to ban the machines outright. By 1970, 32 other states had followed suit, and the shoe-fitting fluoroscope quietly faded into history. For many of the shoe stores who had bought them it was just as well, for by that time the machines had come to be seen as nothing more than an elaborate and expensive gimmick, of little actual use in the fitting of shoes. Ironically, the simple metal Brannock Device, patented at around the same time as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, proved far superior for the task. As Lewis and Caplan wrote in their 1950 report:

“…it is interesting that of the 77 salesmen interviewed, at least half were of the opinion that the machine was not of use in scientific shoe fitting. Most of them were of the opinion that it was chiefly useful for sales promotion and only a small minority favoured its use for more satisfactory fitting, particularly of children. In several instances shoe-fitting machines were found in shops where they had long been relegated to disuse.”

In many ways, the shoe-fitting fluoroscope was emblematic of the era which produced it: an era of boundless optimism and blind, unshakable faith that cutting-edge science and technology could solve all of mankind’s problems – even if it meant blasting yourself in the feet and face with radiation to try on a pair of shoes. Thankfully, we have since learned our lesson and no longer fall for such ill-conceived pseudoscientific nonsense. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a little under the weather; time to take some horse dewormer and malaria medication and inject myself with bleach.

Expand for References

Physics and the Detection of Medical X-Rays: Fluoroscope, https://web.phys.ksu.edu/mmmm/piko/fluor.htm

Lewis, Leon & Caplan, Paul, The Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope as a Radiation Hazard, School of Public Health, University of California Berkeley, January 1950, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1520288/?page=1

Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope (ca. 1930-1940), Oak Ridge Associated Universities Museum of Radiation and Radioactivity, https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/shoe-fitting-fluoroscope/index.html

Marsh, Allison, When X-Rays Were All the Rage, a Trip to the Shoe Store Was Dangerously Illuminating, IEEE Spectrum, October 30, 2020, https://spectrum.ieee.org/when-xrays-were-all-the-rage-a-trip-to-the-shoe-store-was-dangerously-illuminating

Patowary, Kaushik, The Shoe Fitting Machines That Blasted You With Radiation, Amusing Planet, May 24, 2019, https://www.amusingplanet.com/2019/05/the-shoe-fitting-machines-that-blasted.html

Wendorf, Marcia, The Era of the Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope and the Radiation it Caused, Interesting Engineering, August 7, 2019, https://interestingengineering.com/the-era-of-the-shoe-fitting-fluoroscope-and-the-radiation-it-caused

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One comment

  • Yes…this! I remember these…almost every dept. store had one in the shoe section. Haven’t had any trouble with my feet, yet, though, and I’m 78..