If the Shoe Fits: Why X-Rays were in Shoe Stores for Decades

The x-ray was discovered rather unexpectedly in a lab in Bovaria. In 1895, scientist Wilhelm Röntgen was conducting an experiment to see if cathode rays had the ability to pass through glass. He was mesmerized by the green light that was emitted and noticed that the beam could pass through most solid objects, all except metal and bone (Columbia University). Since he had no clue what the beams were, he labeled them “X” (Columbia University). The first ever x-ray was taken of his wife’s hand, Anna Bertha Ludwig, on 22 December, 1895.

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(The bulge on one of Anne’s fingers is actually a piece of jewelry.)

Röntgen’s discovery changed the medical field practically overnight. For the first time ever, medical professionals had the ability to see directly into the body. By 1897, during the Balkan war, x-rays were used on soldiers in order to quickly locate shrapnel and bullets (History). No one was really aware of the dangers of radiation exposure, but rather, the x-ray was seen as a magnificent and harmless ray of light.

A novelty invention known as the shoe-fitting fluoroscope was invented in the 1920s and a patent for the device was granted to Jacob Lowe from Boston (Healio). Designed to look like a piece of furniture, the machine took a live x-ray of a customer’s foot in a shoe in order to see that the fit was complimentary. Ads that came out warned parents against the effects that an ill-fitting shoe can have on a child’s development. The invention came out during the “Scientific Motherhood” movement in the early part of the 20th century. So many medical and scientific discoveries were coming out during the time and mothers were encouraged to use the advice of experts in regards to bringing up their children. Mothers were pressured to follow all of the latest advice in order to ensure that their children developed properly and remained healthy.

Customers who had their feet x-rayed most likely did not experience any complications.  The employees of the shoe stores were the ones who suffered from skin damage and cancers. Having to run the machines multiple times a day throughout the work week exposed them to high amounts of radiation.

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(The shoe fluoroscope typically had three looking pieces, one for the shoe-store employee, one for the parent, and one for the child being fitted. This machine provided a moving shot of the foot in the shoe. Customer x-rays lasted somewhere between 5-60 seconds and most machines operated on an adjustable timer.)

By the 1930s, scientists noticed that people seemed to be negatively affected by radiation exposure. For instance, the death of Eben Byers, a socialite, died after ingesting medical products that contained large amounts of radium over the years (Mandal). His and other similar cases made scientists start to wonder if radiation was really as great as they once thought. Many products in the United States contained radium but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a lot of these products started being removed from the market. In 1971, the Federal Drug Administration was given permission to regulate radiation-emitting devices and use of the shoe fluoroscope slowly fell out of fashion (“From the FDA Vault: Radiating Shoe Sales”). Pennsylvania was the first state to ban use of this device in 1957 (JStor Daily). Some people who lived through the 60s and 70s may even remember sticking their foot inside one of these machines when they were children.

Fluoroscopy is used today in the medical field and is the study of moving body structures. Experts use this live-picture for diagnostic purposes as well as to see how the parts of a patient’s body move.

If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time-

N.F.

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Sources:

One thought on “If the Shoe Fits: Why X-Rays were in Shoe Stores for Decades

  1. I was just reading a memoir written by a woman who grew up in Hillsborough, NC in the 1940s and she mentioned that the shoe store in town, owned and operated by a man named Jack Blieden, had a fluoroscope.

    Like

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