Recently, it was reported that sneaker behemoth Nike will be rolling out a new app which it hopes will modernize the way people measure their feet.
Looking to cut down on the number of returned footwear from online orders, the Nike Fit app allows customers to scan their feet with their phones and then give sizing and shoe recommendations based on 13 data points.
The new technology would seem to be a threat to one of Central New York’s oldest businesses, the Brannock Device company, headquartered in Liverpool.
The Brannock Shoe Device has been the industry-standard for measuring feet since its invention in 1926. It was an invention so perfect that little has changed about it about since it was first developed.
“Obviously there’s always new technology coming out and there’s been a lot of different things over the years,” said Tim Follet, Brannock Device Co. vice president. “You always have to look at what’s up and coming and what’s new and exciting.”
Maybe Brannock’s nonchalance about the Nike’s app is that the company has had competition in the past and has remained on top.
In a letter sent to syracuse.com, Mel Rubenstein of Manlius, who worked in his father’s store, Rochester Sample Shoe Store at 625 South Geddes St., remembered a previous attempt in at getting a person’s shoes to fit perfectly using the latest technology.
“The Brannock Device was considered practically foolproof,” he wrote, but added, “the word practically was not good enough for some, especially overly concerned mothers.”
Shoe stores across the country in the 1940s and ‘50s, much like the Nike app of today, used the latest technology to guarantee their consumers that bought shoes that had the perfect fit.
Enter the Shoe Fitting X-Ray Machine.
There’s a good chance that if you grew up in the 1940s and purchased shoes at a city shoe store who had your feet zapped with radiation.
They were 4-and-one-half foot high wooden cabinets, with shoe-sized slots built into a step. Below that was a fluoroscope which emitted X-rays, partially enclosed in a shielded box. On top of the cabinet there were three viewers.
A customer, usually a child, would place their feet into the slots, while a salesperson set the amperage and a timer, usually set for 20 seconds.
Through the viewer, the child, mother and salesperson could see the bones of the feet, glowing in a yellowish-green color, while a ghostly outline of the show could be seen on the outside. If the customer wiggled their feet, the movements of the bones could be seen. The clerk could manipulate a pointer which they could use to explain to the customer the finer points of how the shoe fit.
Jack Rubenstein, Mel’s father, made sure that his store was one of the first in Upstate New York to have one.
“It stirred a lot of interest,” Mel wrote in his book “The Smell of Leather,” “and customers were impressed that a local neighborhood store would make such an investment.”
The machines were a big hit, and at their peak in the 1940s, there were an estimated 10,000 of them being used throughout the country.
For children, they were a group activity. A popular free after-school activity was watching the bones of your feet wiggle while glowing in neon green.
Jack Rubenstein took advantage of the interest in the new equipment and advertised it extensively. He soon had new customers, coming from as far away as Watertown, Cortland, Utica and Auburn.
A 1946 Rochester Sample Shoe Store ad in the Post-Standard read:
“The tender child foot, with its soft bones and pliant muscle, can be compressed into almost any type of shoe. The child, feeling no pain, cannot tell if the shoe fits properly or not. That’s why we insist upon fitting children’s shoes by X-Ray.”
It was, the ad said, “the only way we, and you, can be sure that your child’s shoes will help to develop normal, healthy feet for a lifetime of foot health and comfort.”
Like most shoe store owners, Rubenstein knew that the X-ray machines were a great sales gimmick and advertising tool but were not a particularly good way to fit shoes to a person’s foot.
“The shoe-fitting fluoroscope was nothing more or less than an elaborate form of advertising designed to sell shoes,” Jacalyn Duffin and Charles H.H. Hayter wrote in a journal article in the University’s of Chicago’s “The History of Social Science.”
“It entered a well-established culture of shoe-selling hucksterism that relied on scientific rhetoric,” which “enticed thrill-seeking children into shops.”
They were kind of pointless: the machines could only show the bones of a foot, not the soft tissue around them.
“Down deep, Jack knew that the shoe fitting X-ray machine was nothing more than a sales tool and merchandising aide,” Mel wrote.
He told his staff that the machine should be used only after they had fitted shoes the best way, by hand.
And the machines had another, more serious, problem.
The typical X-Ray Shoe Fitting Machine delivered a radiation dose of 13 roentgen, though some were much higher, especially if the lead shielding had been removed to make moving the heavy cabinets around easier.
The dose of radiation was relatively harmless for the occasional shoe shopper. But for the children who tested their feet regularly for fun, the machines posed a serious health risk.
They were even more dangerous for the store’s staff who often spent most of their workdays around the machines, which were often out of adjustment and were constructed so radiation often leaked into the store. Some salespeople were asked to place their hands inside the machine while it was on after a customer asked to have the shoe squeezed.
As early as 1950, the radiation hazards of the machines were already recognized, and states began to ban them.
A June 2, 1952, health column in the Post-Standard reminded parents of the danger:
“The obvious danger is that X-ray has a powerful effect on the tissues and repeated or unwise exposure from the foot machines may cause serious burns to the foot. A competent shoe man doesn’t require the aid of a shoe machine, anyway, to fit a shoe properly.”
A 2007 Wisconsin Medical Journal report linked the use of the machines to Basal Cell Carcinoma of the sole of the foot.
By 1950, many states began banning the machines.
In Syracuse, Jack Rubenstein’s store, after being one of the first to employ them in Upstate New York, became one of the first to dispose of theirs after the health-risk became known.
By 1970, 33 states had banned them and strict regulation in the other 17 made them impossible to function.
A Smithsonian article from 2012 says that the fluoroscopes were “replaced by the cold and far less exciting sliding metal measuring device that’s still in use today.”
1946-1959: Dispatches from Syracuse's 'War on Pinball'
Stories from the 1940s and '50s highlighting the fight against pinball in Syracuse.
1904: The ‘fur flies’ as Huntley Tract 'scandal’ captures attention of gossip-starved neighbors
An argument between a husband and wife escalates into a bizarre public spectacle.
Community joins forces to pay tribute to forgotten Syracuse soldier
Syracuse residents and businesses come together through social media to remember a forgotten Syracuse soldier, Thomas Butler.
This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on syracuse.com. Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle: Email | 315-427-3958.
If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation.