Between the 1930’s and 70’s, with the first sense of true autumn in the air it meant it was time to go shopping for back to school shoes. Mom’s took their children to the shoe store and helped them to choose a pair of solid leather oxfords for everyday school and money permitted a pair for dress-up occasions. For little girls that sometimes meant a pair of cross-strap black patient leather shoes, like Mary-Jane’s.
A common and prominent shoe store fixture was a fluoroscope machine; it was considered a shoe salesman’s best friend, particularly in children’s specialty shoe stores like Buster Brown, Paul Parrot and Red Goose. The fluoroscope machine was cutting-edge technology and supplemented the usual shoe-fitting methods, they were also known as “X-Ray shoe fitters.”
A typical fluoroscope machine was an upright brown wooden cabinet with an opening near the bottom into which our feet were positioned. There was a push-button on top with an automatic timer giving about twenty seconds of backlight X-Ray of the feet. The X-Rays traveled upwards, through the feet, to glass screens lit with fluorescent green or yellow.
When children looked through one of the three viewing ports on the top of the cabinet, one for the child being fitted, one for the child’s parent, and the third for the shoe salesperson, they would see a greenish fluorescent image of the bones of the feet and the outline of the shoes.
The fluoroscope’s X-Ray view of their feet made it fun for boys and girls to visit the shoe store. At the same time it provided an image of the bones and soft tissues of the foot inside a shoe, supposedly increasing the accuracy of shoe fitting and in so doing enhanced shoe sales.
Back then it was thought, the shoe-fitting fluoroscope allowed salesmen to better fit shoes, giving the best possible fit making for longer lasting shoes, which meant parents didn’t have to buy as many pairs. Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were installed in shoe stores from 1930’s up until the 1970’s, then disappeared.
The shoe-fitting fluoroscope machine was a non-medical X-Ray and as people began learning more about the dangers of radiation, their reaction to using fluoroscopes for shoe-fitting changed from early enthusiasm and trust to suspicion and fear. By the 1960’s and 1970’s the shoe-fitting fluoroscope was fading away as was the formality of shoe buying. Baby Boomer parents began choosing self-service over full-service shoe shopping and to save money more and more discontinued with having a shoe fitting salesperson available.
Shoe styles were also changing; more children began wearing sneakers rather than leather oxfords for school and play, but back in the early 20th century, “X-Ray shoe fitters” put as much fun into back to school shoe shopping as getting a balloon today.