X-Ray Shoe Fitting Machine | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

X-Ray Shoe Fitting Machine

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

X-Ray Shoe Fitting Machine | Wisconsin Historical Society

The "Simplex" fluoroscope machine, c. 1945-1955

The “Simplex” fluoroscope machine featured three viewing stations. The top image displays the side of the machine where the child would stand and insert his or her feet to be x-rayed. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1992.109

Enlarge"Simplex" viewing stations

The "Simplex" fluoroscope machine three viewing stations, c. 1945-1955

The bottom image shows the top of the machine from the side where the child’s mother and the shoe salesman would view the resulting X-ray image. The child could view the image through the third viewing station. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1992.109

Enlarge"X-Ray Shoe Fitter Inc." logo

"X-Ray Shoe Fitter Inc." logo, c. 1945-1955

“X-Ray Shoe Fitter Inc.” logo from top of fluoroscope shown above. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1992.109

EnlargeShoecard detail

Shoecard detail

Detail from shoecard possibly distributed by salesmen to their clients, showing both X-ray images of feet in shoes and a fluoroscope in use. Source: Image courtesy of Oak Ridge Associated Universities

EnlargeShoe store sign featuring fluoroscope

Shoe store sign featuring fluoroscope, c. 1945-1955

A sign originally used in the same shoe store as the fluoroscope from the Museum’s collection shown above. The store promoted X-rays as a special service for its customers. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1994.2.1

Simplex fluoroscope machine made by X-Ray Shoe Fitter, Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and most likely used in a Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin shoe store, c. 1945-1955.
(Museum object #1992.109)

In the late 1940s, Noren's Shoes of Sturgeon Bay attracted customers with the slogan "Shoes of Quality, X-Ray Fitted." Like many other shoe stores at the time, Noren's used an X-ray machine, or fluoroscope, to assure customers of a perfectly fitted shoe. While improvements in fit were dubious, fluoroscopes did succeed in "scientifically" marketing shoes for more than a quarter century.

Fluoroscopes consist of an X-ray generating tube and a fluorescent screen. In use, the patient stands between the two, and an image of the patient's body appears on the screen. Unlike still X-ray images made on photographic film, fluoroscopes allow doctors to observe a moving body in real time. Shoe fitting fluoroscopes consisted of a lead-shielded X-ray tube in the base of a metal or wooden cabinet. The customer placed his or her feet in a slot near the bottom of the machine, and when activated by the salesperson, the projected X-rays produced an image of the feet within the shoes. Three metal viewing scopes topped the cabinet: one each for the customer (often a child), the salesperson and presumably a parent. Fortunately, the X-rays did not continue directly through to the viewers' eyes, but were reflected by mirrors to the viewing ports. With repeated use of the fluoroscope with different pairs of shoes, an enterprising clerk could entice customers to find the perfect fit.

Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were invented almost simultaneously in the United States and England. The American version has its roots in World War I, with the United States military's intense study of the fit of boots and its effect on soldiers' health. Dr. Jacob Lowe, a Boston physician, first developed a fluoroscope for quickly diagnosing veterans with foot problems. After the war, he converted the device for use in shoe stores. His 1919 patent application claims that by using this device, "a shoe merchant can positively assure his customers that they need never wear ill-fitting boots and shoes."

Milwaukee quickly became a center of the new technology. According to his obituary, Milwaukee shoe dealer S. J. Brouwer began using a fitting fluoroscope in 1919, and Lowe assigned his patent, finally granted in 1927, to the Adrian Company of Milwaukee. Eventually, X-Ray Shoe Fitter, Inc. of Milwaukee, which produced both the Adrian and Simplex fluoroscope lines, emerged as the leading manufacturer of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes in the United States.

The X-ray shoe fitter quickly became a fixture in American shoe stores, taking advantage of several developing social trends. By continuing to celebrate the amazing properties of X-rays and radium, popular magazines and newspapers of the 1920s reinforced the notion that the devices were modern, scientific, and infallible. In addition, since the early 20th century, the "scientific motherhood" movement had pressured American women to incorporate the latest medical and scientific innovations into their domestic duties to be considered successful mothers. At the same time, advertisers increasingly targeted children. The fluoroscope proved a powerful method of encouraging parents to bring children to their store: as the Canadian Shoe and Leather Journal put it in 1947, "Kiddies love it!"

While the shoe industry trade literature often discussed fluoroscopes, the articles seldom claimed that they improved a shoe's fit - perhaps because fluoroscopes provided only a one-dimensional view from above. Instead, articles emphasized that fluoroscopes could "scientifically" verify salesmen's recommendations and help steer customers to more expensive shoes.

Even as shoe stores rushed to add the machines, the dangers of X-ray radiation were becoming more evident. By the 1920s many X-ray pioneers -- who had received massive doses of seemingly harmless X-rays during their experiments -- suffered well-publicized, painful and often gruesome deaths. Even before the shoe-fitting fluoroscope was patented, the first, tentative national guidelines on radiation exposure were established.

While the theoretical dangers of excessive radiation exposure were already fairly well known within the scientific field, actual data on shoe store exposure did not appear until the late 1940s. Towards the end of that decade articles in medical journals began to document the potential health effects of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes (skin and bone marrow damage; growth problems). At the same time, other research discovered that a high percentage of the nearly 10,000 fluoroscopes in use in the United States emitted dangerous levels of radiation for both customers and clerks. Various health and industrial hygiene organizations began recommending against using the devices. On November 24, 1950, Milwaukee became one of the first cities in the nation to regulate the operation and location of the machines, and in 1957 Pennsylvania became the first state to outlaw their use. By 1960, 34 states had banned the machines.

By then, shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were already on their way out, not so much because of regulations as because they had lost their marketing effectiveness. X-ray shoe fitters were now more likely to alienate well-informed customers than to attract them with promises of infallible technology.

[Note: The fluoroscope in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society featured here was donated by an antiques dealer in 1992. He had purchased the machine in the Sturgeon Bay area but was unsure of where it had been used. While the Society has found that Noren's Shoes in Sturgeon Bay advertised X-ray fitting for its shoes, it has not yet confirmed that this machine was used in that store.

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[Sources: Sturgeon Bay City Directory, 1948; Duffin, Jacalyn and Charles R.R. Hayter. "Baring the Sole: The Rise and Fall of the Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope," Isis June 2000, 91(2):260-82.; "Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope" online content from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.]


Posted on September 28, 2006