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Adrian Special: First Shoe Fitter Machine

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, thereby “guaranteeing” 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, so a physician needed to sit in a darkened room for about 15 minutes to let his eyes adjust before evaluating the fluoroscopy. (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.)

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.

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.


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