The X-ray shoe-fitting machine (fluoroscope) was a common fixture in American shoe stores during the 1930s-50s. In ads, the machines were touted as a new way to check the fit of a shoe. This was thought to “guarantee” that the shoes would be comfortable. Children’s shoes were said to last longer because the fit could be more exact.
The first fluoroscope was invented by Thomas Edison in 1896, one year after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray. The device created images that could be reflected on a screen showing the internal structures and fluids in the human body. However, the images were very dim. In order to “read” the fluoroscopy, a physician sat in a darkened room for about 15 minutes to let his eyes adjust. (Another inventor found that red goggles reduced the amount of light entering the eye; this eliminated the need for sitting in a dark room first.)
Who Thought of the Shoe-Fitting X-Ray?
A couple of men claim “first” for using fluoroscopy to check the fit of shoes. The most believable story concerns a Dr. Jacob Lowe who was with the military. America was gearing up to enter World War I, and Dr. Lowe’s job was to conduct physicals on all incoming soldiers. He found that by using fluoroscopy as the men came through, he could check their feet without the men having to take off their boots. He was later said to have filed a patent application (1919) that was granted in 1927.
After the war, Dr. Lowe made several appearances to actively demonstrate the device. In 1921, a shoe trade publication reporter wrote about the device he saw Dr. Lowe demonstrate at a trade show in Boston: “It is possible to see the bones of the foot inside the shoe and shows clearly any deformation or misplacement of the bony structure.”
However, another claim for “first” came from the Adrian family of Wisconsin. Based in Milwaukee, the Adrian Corporation primarily made automatic phonographs and pianos, but in an interview with the Fond du Lac Reporter, Sylvester Adrian mentioned that his brother’s son had polio. “The X-ray fitting device for selecting his shoes was enormously helpful.” That’s why Matthew Adrian pursued it.
What Does the Patent Office Say About First?
While reporters of the day documented Dr. Lowe’s use of the fluoroscope for shoe-fitting, no application for his patent could be found. However, there is an application from a Matthew Adrian that partially tracks the same time frame. Adrian’s application was filed in 1921—not 1919 as Lowe’s was said to have been—and it was granted in 1927. It bears no mention of Dr. Lowe. Perhaps Lowe sold or turned his application over to Adrian.
Ultimately, Adrian became the major manufacturer for the devices in the United States.
The Adrian Shoe Fluoroscope
The fluoroscope was housed in a polished-wood cabinet that stood about four feet high. At the bottom of the cabinet, there was a slot where customers could slip their feet (wearing their shoes). At the top of the cabinet three viewing portals provided a view for the salesman and for the customer, and for a parent, if the shoe-wearer was a child.
The view through the portals revealed a fluorescent image of the bones of the feet and the outline of the shoes. Some of the fluoroscopes allowed the shoe salesman to adjust the setting. A high density setting was recommended for men, the medium setting was for women, and the lowest setting was for children. Most of the units also had timers, usually set for about 20 seconds of exposure.
Necessary safety measures were described in the patent: “It is of course understood that both the hood and bottom portion of the cabinet may be suitably lined with lead, may be painted with a lead paint, or otherwise treated to prevent the outward passage of any harmful rays.”
But the wording in the patent application then takes a more casual turn, pointing out that any “unskilled operator” will be able to operate it.
X-Ray Shoe-Fitting Machines Very Popular
With those provisions, the device was marketed “as the scientific way to see if shoes fit properly.” Stores bought them to build traffic. The devices were great to feature in ads, and customers were fascinated. Children couldn’t wait to step on the device to be able to look at their feet in shoes. Groups of adolescents would sometimes run into the stores just to check their feet.
IN 1946 the American Standards Association established a “safe standard” for X-ray use for the feet. It specified that a person should be exposed to no more than 2R (röntgen) in a 5-second exposure. This ruling dampened the enthusiasm of manufacturers. Going forward, they knew they would be subject to a regulatory process.
Use of X-Ray Shoe Fitting Machine Fades
A study done in Detroit in 1948 indicated that the exposure rate to feet was more generally 16-75 R per minute. But the exposure rate to employees was much higher because of the exposure day after day to scatter or leakage from the machine day after day. The individual was probably not harmed by an occasional step into the fluoroscope but the sales people were receiving a substantial amount because of leaking cabinets.
In the early 1950s, professional medical associations issued healthy warnings about exposure. Manufacturers became increasingly worried, and shoe store owners knew it was time to get rid of them.
In 1957, Pennsylvania became the first state to ban the machines. By the mid-1960s, most stores in the U.S. no longer had them. Today there are a few on display in museums.
In 2021, I had an email from an ultrasound technician offering the following advice about the dangers of these machines: “It is now well-known in the ultrasound community [that these machines were dangerous].
“If someone played with one of these machines or worked around one of these machines, they should ask their doctor to order an ultrasound of the thyroid. Medicare will pay for the exam. There is an increased incidence of thyroid cancer with exposure to unshielded radiation. Thyroid cancers are usually slow growing and easily treatable,” writes the technician.
To read about shoes that were popular in this era, read about Buster Brown Shoes and Mary Janes.