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.
This story was edited and adapted from Dave Driscoll’s original Curators’ Favorites article.
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.