“You can see all the bones of your toes. They look like a bunch of twigs. And when you wiggle your foot, the bones wiggle too.”
~Soup. Robert Newton Peck. 1974
Before this research, my entire knowledge of these early shoe-fitting fluoroscopes came from two book: a brief mention at the end of the children’s book Soup by Robert Newton Peck; and a longer, darker scene in Stephen King’s 1986 book IT. The two depictions were contrasting, to say the least.
Once upon a time, 10,000 of these fluoroscopes found their way to American shoe stores. They were state-of-the-art, bulky, heavy, and immensely expensive. Each cost from $650 to $1500, at least as much as two Ford Model Ts (around $13,000 in today’s dollars). Store owners offset the expense by parading them out in newspaper ads. The machines became customer-drawing showpieces and shoes had turned into science.
How Effective Were the Foot Fluoroscopes?
Precision footwear might seem a novelty today, but in the early 20th century, even small towns had professional cobblers. Most of us have several pairs of shoes today, each with its own use, like a Swiss Army knife of footwear. That is only a recent phenomenon.
A century ago, you’d have one, maybe two pairs of shoes, handmade with nails, thick-stitching and heavy leather. Glue eventually replaced nails. Waterproofing didn’t involve plastic, but meant working gobs of mink oil into the leather by hand (to be honest, that’s still the best waterproofing method).
These x-ray shoe fitting machines promised well-fitting shoes. It was a gimmick more than anything else and presented to the public as both a technical wonder and a commercial centerpiece. The machine looked like fine furniture and their dangerous inner-workings covered by mahogany or white oak, polished to a satin finish. Deadly radiation had never looked this classy.
To be honest, these machines didn’t really advanced the craft of shoe-making. Any decent cobbler can put together good shoes without peering into your bone structure. Even today, most parents and/or shoe salespeople are experts at testing a shoe’s fit by surgically pressing their thumbs on the toe box and asking “Can you feel that?”
How Dangerous Were Shoe X-Ray Machines?
When it comes to radiation, these shoe fluoroscopes were dirtier than a bus station toilet.
Duration of exposure is, usually, the most important variable in determining risk, and 20 seconds a couple times a year wasn’t much*. While children run a greater risk of suffering acute or chronic radiation sickness, body extremities like feet were more resistant (skeletal and muscle cells are not as sensitive as other body systems). Thankfully, children only used them for brief periods, averaging about 20 seconds.
*Unless you’re my father, who told me he and his friends used to pop into a friendly Indiana shoe store several times a week and stare at their green, wiggling bones. Yikes.
These fluoroscopes blasted children’s feet all day, but only for seconds or minutes. The workers, salespeople, and storeowners simmered in radiation all day. Each time a customer popped their feet into the deadly wooden box, radiation leaked through the wood and gave the salesperson a small dose. Even when not in use, these saturated machines constantly sprinkled radiation on anyone nearby.
Worse than that were the modifications stores often made to the fluoroscopes. Usually the customer’s feet appeared dim and even grainy in the x-ray. Like two gray-green bundles in a shadow box. Shoe sellers noticed that the most popular fluoroscopes were the brightest ones.
By simply removing some of the metal plates coating the machine’s interior, they could instantly make the shape sharp, bright, and highly-contrasted. It was like switching from an old Zenith with rabbit ears (a kind of antenna for the young folks out there) to cable-fed Ultra HD.
All storeowners had to do was remove the metal plating, which was usually thin aluminum. Today we have another word for those plates: shielding. Some workers would spend the entire day working in a tiny shoe store, eating lunch and taking phone calls a dozen steps away from a radiation source that, today, would require a building evacuation and hazmat suits.
How much deadly radiation are we talking?
Americans bought 10,000 of these machines from several manufacturers, at time when X-ray machines were barely regulated (regulations remained “informal” until 1946, when military scientists noted the radiation effects at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Different owners made different modifications. Clothing affected exposure rates. Employees came and went. Even the way a salesperson leaned on the machine affected exposure.
The 1950 report “The Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope as a Radiation Hazard”, responsible for waking our country to the machines’ dangers, summarized those totals nicely (measurements are in r = roentgens):
“Many machines had a push-button timer, giving exposures of 5 to 45 seconds: about 20 seconds was the most popular time. Many measurements were quoted, made on 12 machines, by means of a Victoreen [sic] r meter in a shoe, and the range of dosage was from 30 to 350 r per minute.”
First, those doses are roughly 1000 times greater than modern x-rays. 200-300 roentgens can cause abnormalities in a child’s growth. 500-600 roentgens can damage the soft tissue of adults.
Above that, you essentially become a biohazard.
Bear in mind, that 1950 study did not take shielding or other factors into consideration, since that would include too many variables. We’re also talking a single minute of use.
Imagine the shop workers or assistants or salespeople standing around this machine all day, everyday. These variables also prevented researchers from performing wide-scale studies. We know the machines were dangerous, but without tracking data, we’ll never know exactly how dangerous.