How X-ray shoe fittings used to really be a thing years ago

How X-ray shoe fittings used to really be a thing years ago

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Back in the 1920s, footwear manufacturers and merchants decided that X-ray shoe fittings could bring in lots of customers — people who would be thrilled to let a recent scientific advance help them find the perfect shoe. 

And that’s why the shoe-fitting fluoroscope — basically a specialized X-Ray machine — was at the core of a very popular marketing scheme that sold lots of footwear… up until the dangers of radiation were better understood and the devices were eventually removed from stores. (At the end of this article, 

Below, see what the machines were like, and how they were promoted — particularly as a way to help fit children’s shoes.

TIME magazine listed “Shoe-Store X Rays” in their 1999 article, “100 Worst Ideas Of The Century” — alongside other notably questionable concepts, like New Coke, DDT, The DeLorean, Choosing VHS over Beta, The Titanic, Mood Rings, The Edsel,  and “Installing a Recording System in the Oval Office.”

X-ray shoe fitting machines and shops

The X-ray machine for fitting feet: Shoe-fitting fluoroscope (1923)

From the El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas) March 14, 1923

The newly installed X-ray machine is proving to be of greatest assistance to customers in obtaining shoes which fit perfectly.

This is particularly true in fitting shoes for little folks. It is impossible for children to know whether a shoe fits or not, with the aid of this machine we can tell exactly.

The X-ray machine is not a novelty, but a big development in shoe fitting. By the use of the X-ray machine, you are given inside knowledge of the fit of your shoe, and it makes shoe fitting a scientific procedure in which all chance is done away with.

Parents, physicians and the public generally are invited to see this new machine.

ALSO SEE: 1920s shoes for women: Stylish footwear from a century ago

People lining up to use the X-ray shoe fitting machine (1920s)
People lining up to use the X-ray shoe fitting machine (1920s). Sign in the back reads: “Do your shoes fit? Let the X-ray tell the story.”

Dr. Scholl’s scientific shoes (1937)

From The Park City Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky) July 25, 1937

Regardless of what kind of a foot you have, you will find a Dr. Scholl Scientific Shoe that will fit you perfectly. There are more than 60 Styles and 600 Combination Fittings.

For men there are sizes from 6 to 14; for women, 214 to 13; widths AAAA to EEE. All sizes for children and growing girls. The fine materials and expert workmanship used in these shoes give them wonderful wearing qualities.

Dr. Scholl's scientific shoes with X-Ray technology (1937)

Free demonstration

All fittings will be made by Dr. Scholl’s experts from Chicago. They will use X-ray Machine, Dr. Scholl’s Pedograph and Automatic Shoe Sizer — every modern device that insures perfect fit and satisfaction.

For relieving aggravated Foot Troubles, these experts will have a complete line of Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Appliances and Remedies.

Come in. Talk to the Dr. Scholl experts. Learn the cause of your foot suffering and how little it costs to enjoy again comfortable, healthy, well-dressed feet. No charge — no obligation.

X-ray fitting

Dr. Scholl’s Latest Fluoroscopic X-ray Machine shows clearly the bones, tissues, shoe construction and the actual positioning of your feet and toes in the shoe. Eliminates all guesswork.

ALSO SEE: 1930s shoes for women: 100 vintage styles

X-Ray shoe store in Tampa, Florida (1938)

Free X-ray tests to assure proper shoe fit (1940)

From the Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey) March 6, 1940

Shoe fitting machine demonstration features corrective event.

Free X-ray examination to assure proper shoe fit is offered by Shapiro’s Corrective Shoe Store at 219 Broadway.

The Shapiro concern specializes in corrective shoes for men, women and children. Doctors’ prescriptions are filled. X-ray examinations are made at all times, and this service is not confined to patrons, but is made available to anyone who wishes a check-up.

Vintage X-ray shoe fitting certificate c1940s

Through use of the X-ray machine, the difference between proper and ill-fitting shoes becomes immediately apparent. The bones of the feet are shown clearly, with their position within the shoe plainly outlined.

Under this system there is no guessing, no excuse for a shoe that does not fit exactly right. Any tendencies that might be injurious to the feet are exposed and may be remedied immediately.

The operation of the machine its in itself interesting and the public is invited to stop in during Bargain Days and use it. At the same time, special low prices will mark a stock. Harry Shapiro, proprietor, explained.

ALSO SEE: Women’s shoes from the 1940s: See stylish high-heeled vintage footwear

How X-ray works on feet

The value of the X-ray shoe-fitting machine is clearly demonstrated in this picture.

Harry Shapiro, proprietor of Shapiro’s Corrective Shoe Store at 219 Broadway, is showing a customer how the examination is made.

The inset shows a closeup of two feet, one properly booted, the other cramped by a tight shoe.

How X-ray works on feet (1940)

There’s no guesswork when fitting shoes at Sears (1943)

From the Spokane Chronicle (Spokane, Washington) August 12, 1943

In fact, it’s dangerous to have your child’s shoes fitted in any other way. 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. That’s 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.

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X-rays - There's no guesswork when fitting shoes at Sears (1943)

Dangers of X-ray machines for shoe fitting (1949)

By The Physicians Forum — The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania) October 27, 1949

Many shoe stores today use X-ray machines to help in fitting shoes. This practice has spread throughout the United States, particularly in stores which supply shoes for children.

Recent investigations have shown that these X-ray machines are not without their dangers. Measures should be taken to achieve stricter control of their use in order to safeguard the public.

One possible result from too much exposure to X-rays is interference with the normal growth of the child’s feet. Growing bone is easily damaged by too great an exposure to X-rays.

Another possibility is damage to the skin of the child’s feet which may result from repeated exposures to X-rays.

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X-ray shoe fitting demonstration (c1930s)

Employees of shoe stores who work near shoe-fitting X-ray machines may be exposed to repeated doses of X-rays from improperly shielded machines.

Such exposure over a long period of time can have possibly serious effects on the individual’s blood-forming tissues.

The investigators point out that the chances of interference with bone growth or damage to the child’s skin is unlikely after a single exposure to the shoe-fitting X-ray machine.

However, repeated exposures of the feet in improperly regulated X-ray machines throughout childhood and teen age could result in foot deformities, and even in permanent skin damage.

Should be carefully controlled

To prevent injury to customers and employees, the use of X-ray machines in shoe stores should be carefully controlled. There should be proper shielding of the machines to prevent leakage of X-rays.

The customers and the store officials should be educated about the dangers of misuse of the machines. There should be easy-to-see warning signs on each machine to warn the public against too frequent use of the machines.

Accidental overexposure can be prevented by restricting the use of the machines to qualified personnel.

All too often, we see children X-raying their feet over and over again in crowded department stores or shoe stores while the shoe salesmen are too busy to notice.

The average time and intensity of exposure to the X-ray machines should be reduced. The state of Massachusetts has adopted maximum limits of five seconds for each exposure, three X-ray shoe fittings in a single day, and no more than 12 X-ray shoe fitting in a year.

These are good limits to remember.

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Shoe-fitting X-ray banned (1960)

Excerpted from The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) September 25, 1960

At least 33 states and the District of Columbia have either banned the use of X-ray fluoroscopes for shoe-fitting purposes or have adopted strict regulations for such devices.

Dr. Leory E. Burney, surgeon general of the Public Health Service, said these actions “are the result of rapidly widening recognition by state governments that all unnecessary radiation exposure should be avoided.”

Radioactive sign - Danger warning

X-Rays then and X-Rays now: The math

From Click Americana (2022)

A 1956 study in the British Medical Journal reported that American fluoroscopes back then delivered anywhere between 30 to 350 roentgen (R) per minute (depending on the machine).

Assuming the average 20-second exposure, that comes out to between 10 and 117 R per shoe fitting. Using a radiation converter, we calculated the following:

10 R = 87.7 mSv
117 R = 1,026 mSv (about 1 sievert [Sv])

How does that compare to today?

A typical dental X-ray produces about 1/10 of a millisievert (mSv), while a full-body CAT scan generates roughly 10 mSV. (See the statistics here.)

Put simply, just one of these 20-second foot X-ray sessions would typically give a radiation dose 8.7 times greater than a full CAT scan — one of the medical procedures with the greatest exposure — and could be up to 102 times greater.

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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. Whew! Glad that contraption was phased out by the time I came along. I get the concept but WOW! My husband (born in 1952) swears he had his feet examined in one of those machines.

  2. Thanks for the article because I found it hard to explain to people that never heard of them.
    Some of these machines were very decorative to encourage little kids to step up and use them. Like horses and animals from a Merry Go Round. And if no one was looking my sister and I would take turns looking at each other foot or stick our hands in it until someone yelled at us to stop.

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