The hazards of shoe shopping in the past

1930s Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope

The most ground breaking scientific discoveries usually find their way into mainstream use and x-rays are no exception. Since they were discovered by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, they have been widely used in medicine, dentistry, security and other fields. However, not many people are aware that from the 1920s to the 1950s x-ray machines were common features in shoe stores.

Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes (also known as pedoscopes) were x-ray machines designed to check the fit of new shoes. They took pride of place in shops and would be positioned on specially lit raised platforms. Customers would place their feet into an opening at the bottom of a vertical wooden cabinet then look down though a viewing port to see a fluorescent image of the bones of their feet inside an outline of their shoes. Additional viewing ports allowed salespeople and companions to take a look. Visualising bones and soft tissues inside the shoes purportedly allowed salespeople to help their customers get a better fit by checking for toe room. This was especially pertinent to cash-strapped parents, who were concerned that their children would quickly outgrow poorly fitted shoes.

While the origin of the device is unknown, radiographic imaging was used in the First World War to examine foot injuries without requiring soldiers to take off their boots. After the war this technique was adapted for nonmedical use and fluoroscopes began to appear in shoe shops throughout Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, America and Australia from the mid 1920s. The public response was initially one of enthusiasm and excitement, as people were delighted to see the effects of this seemingly magical x-ray technology first hand.

However, these feelings were gradually replaced by ones of fear and mistrust with growing public knowledge of the dangers of radiation exposure. Although it had long been known that scientists exposed to radioactive material suffered from severe side effects including burns, sterility and cancer, knowledge of the risks that x-rays posed to the general public took much longer to be recognised. Greater understandings of the effects of radiation after the Second World Ward led to the introduction of legislation stipulating that those who worked with radioactive material were required to wear protective shields and undergo periodic health checks. The fluoroscopes found in shoe shops came under fire from health departments and medical journals in response to public concerns that children were being regularly being exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

Testing of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes began in the late 1940s and the machines were found to be unsafe. They were discovered to emit dangerously high doses of radiation to anyone located in the near vicinity. Children who are about twice as radiosensitive as adults and salespeople who were chronically exposed were at the highest risk. Customers who tried on multiple pairs of shoes in one sitting or made several visits over the course of a year were exposed to cumulative doses. Anecdotal reports of salespeople suffering from radiation burns began to emerge as well as cases of bone damage in young children. Furthermore, shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were found to provide little benefit in ensuring a better fit as the soft fleshy part of people’s toes did not show up on the radiographic images of feet positioned inside new shoes.

Indeed, it appears that the fluoroscope functioned better as a sales promotion device than as a fitting aid. Children loved playing with the machines and they helped to reassure parents that they were not wasting their money. Fluoroscopes were widely promoted as the most scientific and accurate way of fitting shoes in an era when most people believed that having durable and high quality footwear was important to ensure good health. In reality, the machines were harmful and merely served to entice people into shops and confirm the judgement of salespeople.

By the mid 1950s, governments began to introduce legislation regulating the use of the devices. The passing of increasingly stringent regulations meant that by the early 1960s dangerous shoe-fitting fluoroscopes had been phased out altogether.

Image credit

National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. (n.d.) 1930s shoe fitting fluoroscope [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/rocbolt/7375805180

References

Duffin, J., & Hayter, C.R.R. (2000). Baring the sole: The rise and fall of the shoe-fitting fluoroscope. Isis, 91(2), 260-282.

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