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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 shoe or department 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.
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.”
X-Rays then and X-Rays now: The math
From Click Americana (2021)
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.