I recall going to department stores along or near F Street NW to buy shoes with my mother in the 1940s. There was an X-ray machine in the shoe department. The child would slide his or her foot into a slot, and the salesman pushed a button that took an X-ray to see how the foot fit into the new shoes. When no one was around, my sister and I would play with the machine. I would slide my arm in the shoe slot while she pushed the button to see the bones in my hand and arm. It’s a good thing the slot wasn’t any bigger — we would have had a lot more exposure. I often wonder what became of the X-ray machines, and when they were removed from the shoe departments.
—Dan Mulville, Vienna, Va.
The mighty atom has been harnessed to perform all sorts of tasks, from powering submarines to leveling cities. Perhaps none was odder, in hindsight, than using it to sell shoes.
Notice that Answer Man wrote “sell” shoes, not “fit” shoes, for though footwear retailers touted the benefits of their miraculous all-seeing contraption, the X-ray machine — or fluoroscope — was a gimmick, more for show than for science.
X-rays were discovered by the German physicist W.C. Roentgen in 1895. By 1920, they were being used to show shoe-shoppers the bones in their feet. The fluoroscopes were large wooden consoles, with an opening at the bottom and a set of viewing tubes at the top.
In 1921, Hahn’s Reliable Shoes was touting the “Foot-o-Scope” it had in its store at Seventh and K streets NW. The X-ray machine “takes the ‘guess’ out of shoe fitting,” promised one advertisement in The Washington Post.
Similar machines proliferated at shoe stores throughout the 1930s. It was a veritable arms race, well, foot race. Edmonston & Co. used a fluoroscope to sell its Physical Culture brand of women’s shoe.
Department stores jumped on the bandwagon with both feet. “Bring all the children you have and get all the shoes they need,” the Hecht Co. commanded in an ad. “We fit their feet with the aid of an X-Ray machine.”
Woodward & Lothrop trumpeted, “Use our X-ray machine to see just how your children’s feet look in Propr-Bilt Shoes.”
A brief article in The Post in 1949 lauded X-ray machines, noting, “It is wise to place the child in this machine and know the shoe is perfect for the foot, rather than depend entirely on the judgment of a salesman.”
But that same year, an article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine warning that shoe-store fluoroscopes could cause permanent damage to the skin of children’s feet.
A co-author, L.H. Hemplemann of Harvard University, told the Associated Press that the machines posed a special hazard to children because children required more fittings and were so curious that they often played with the machines.
Store employees were at risk, too. Radiation could cause blood disorders in the salespeople who spent their working days standing at the machines and pressing the button. Their “sex glands” were also exposed to radiation.
Even so, in 1950 the Sterling Kiddie Shop in Silver Spring offered fluoroscope shoe fitting for such brands as Dr. Posner’s Scientific Shoes.
In 1956, a Johns Hopkins University geneticist condemned using X-ray machines for shoe-fitting — and for treating ringworm, another use. He also noted the danger in glow-in-the-dark watch dials painted with radioactive radium.
It was around then that local and state legislatures started prohibiting the use of shoe-store fluoroscopes. By 1960, most states had banned them. From then on, if kids wanted to see bones, they had to order X-Ray Specs from the backs of comic books.
Rick Thoensen of Clifton, Va., wonders what happened to the Balloon Man, who sold balloons on the streets of Georgetown. “I remember seeing him in the ’70s in front of the Little Tavern on Wisconsin Avenue,” wrote Rick. “He was always in a three-piece suit, and would say things like ‘Make the children happy. Make the ladies happy. When the ladies are happy, everyone is happy.’ ”
Answer Man found many references to the Balloon Man — referred to as both Marcus Johnson and Maurice Johnson in press accounts. Does anyone know where he is now?
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.