Replica shoes

Department stores in Indiana once used x-rays on children to fit shoes

“Mom, I love my new shoes, but how come I glow in the dark now?” – A kid from the 1940s, maybe.

There is a popular expression that goes, “If only I knew then what I know now.” This basically means that the chances that we would have agreed to participate in an activity, experience, relationship or anything else would have been much less likely if we knew what the end result would be. This was the first thing that came to mind when I recently learned that department stores and shoe stores used to use small x-ray machines on children to make sure their new shoes fit properly.

Doctors with x-rays


Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve had to have an x-ray for one reason or another. Maybe you broke a bone or you think you broke a bone and other than opening yourself up and looking around it was the best way for the doctor to see what was going on inside of you to determine a treatment plan. Sometimes they are used as a preventative maintenance measure. Many dentists will take x-rays of your mouth every year to see the roots of your teeth below the gum line and make sure there are no problems lurking there.

Whatever the reason, preparing for an x-ray is often the same procedure. The X-ray technician covers part of you in a lead-lined blanket, then they hide behind a wall or go to a completely different room while the machine does its job. Why? Because x-rays use radiation to work. And, needless to say, absorbing radiation is no good.

If they knew then what we know now.

Fluoroscopes once used to x-ray feet for proper shoe fit

The X-Ray was discovered in 1895 by a German engineer and physicist named Wilhelm Roentgen. About 20 years later, the US military used technology to ensure that soldiers’ boots fit properly during World War I. But, according to Engineering magazine, IEEE Spectruma visionary doctor saw an opportunity to apply the technology to the mainstream (and I’m guessing a few dollars too).

Jacob J. Lowe, a physician in Boston, used fluoroscopy to examine the feet of injured soldiers without removing their boots. When the war ended, Lowe adapted the technology for shoe stores and filed a US patent in 1919, although it was not granted until 1927. He named his device the Foot-O-Scope .

The Foot-O-Scope was soon in use in department stores across the country, including the Sears, Roebuck & Company store in downtown Evansville, located at the corner of 4th and Sycamore streets.

Willard Library Archive

Willard Library Archive

The problem, of course, was that it literally blasted customers, especially the children on whom the machines were most often used, with radiation with little or no protection. And we’re not talking a little radiation. As the video below explains, the amount of radiation absorbed by customers and vendors was far greater than it should have been. Let’s just say it’s pretty amazing that they didn’t all turn into human light bulbs.

If they knew then what we know now.

[Sources: Nobel / IEEE Spectrum / Michael J. Koleszar via the I Grew Up in Evansville, Indiana Facebook Group]

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