Thanks to Susan Oldham of Lefors, Texas, the mystery of the "X-ray shoe-fitting machine" has now been solved. Many readers recalled shoe-buying expeditions of the past where the customer placed his feet into a machine, which showed an X-ray of the feet inside the new shoes. This sounded like a pretty far-out tale to me, but the story is true and here are the facts.
The Shoe-Fitting-Fluoroscope was a common fixture in better shoe stores from 1930 to 1950. The wooden fixture contained a step near the bottom with a hole in which the customer inserted his or her foot inside the prospective new shoe. Three viewing ports were located on the top for the customer, the customer's companion (or mother) and the salesman to see how the shoes fit. A push-button turned on the machine for 20-second intervals. Inside, the shadowy outline of the bones and shape of the foot could be seen inside the outline of the shoes, theoretically providing a better fit for the customer.
History provides varied accounts of the device's origin. It seems to date to World War I, when it was first used to speed diagnosis of foot injuries and shoe-fit problems experienced by soldiers. After the war, in about 1920, the device's design and appearance were improved and it started appearing in shoe stores. A patent was granted in 1927, assigned to the Adrian Co., of Milwaukee. In about 1946, the safety of exposure to X-rays began to be questioned, and regulations were implemented governing use of that technology. By 1957, many states banned the use of such equipment. Today shoe-fitting machines are rarely seen outside of museum collections.
The shoe-fitting machine is one early-day experience I did not have. When any member of my family needed shoes, my mother split a brown paper grocery sack and placed it on the floor. We stood in bare feet while she traced the outline of our feet, allowing plenty of "room to grow." Then she measured the distance around the arches and placed that measurement on a line drawn through the outline on the paper. We chose a style and mailed the order to Montgomery Ward & Co. or Sears & Roebuck. With fit and quality guaranteed or your money back, we couldn't go wrong.
Most cowboys ordered their boots the same way. We had a shoe/boot stretcher at home and seldom did a week pass without some neighbor coming by to borrow the stretcher to help make a new boot or shoe fit more comfortably. Foot injuries, corns, bunions and swelling were all tended to by making a slit in the boot's leather, delivering relief.
My favorite pair of boots came when I was about age 5, when Santa Claus brought me a cowboy design complete with copper toes and heel guards. I told everyone "These new boots will run a lot faster than my old boots." Dad always teased mother when she bought new shoes. He would tell everyone "She tried on size 7, but size 8 felt so good she bought size 9."
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org