Remember the Fluoroscope?

Here is a walk down memory lane for anyone old enough to remember the fluoroscope, an x-ray device that was available in thousands of shoe stores worldwide. It also had several proprietary names, including the Pedoscope, X-ray Shoe Fitter, and the Foot-o-scope.

Fluoroscopes were once a common sight in shoe stores. Thousands of the devices were installed in the mid-20th century. Eventually, customers, shoe salespeople, and medical authorities alike finally realized that a shoe store isn’t the best place for a boxful of radioactive isotopes.

I well remember my mother taking me to Reed’s Footwear and Clothing store where we and Bill Reed (the owner of the store) all looked at live x-ray images of my feet inserted into new shoes in the store to see if the shoes fit properly or not.

Nobody seemed to realize these unregulated, unshielded x-ray machines were a health hazard. While they were perhaps a minor hazard to customers, they apparently caused cancer amongst shoe salespeople who were exposed to x-rays off and on, all day, every day. In 1957, Pennsylvania became the first US state to ban use of these machines. Other states and most other countries banned the use of these machines soon after.

The image above shows a typical fluoroscope. The customer, often a child, would try on the new shoes and then stand on a “platform” on the back of the device. (One corner of the platform is barely visible on the back of the fluoroscope in the above picture.) Then there were three viewing ports on top. These allowed the shoe salesperson, the customer (such as my mother), and the person wearing the shoes (that’s me!) to simultaneously view the live x-rays. I well remember that I wasn’t so interested in the shoes but was fascinated by the fact I could see a live image of the bones in my toes as I wiggled them a bit.

It wasn’t until several years later that the risks became well-known. According to an article in Wikipedia:

“Large variations in dose were possible depending on the machine design, displacement of the shielding materials, and the time and frequency of use. Radiation surveys showed that American machines delivered an average of 13 roentgen (r) (roughly 0.13 sievert (Sv) of equivalent dose in modern units) to the customer’s feet during a typical 20 second viewing, with one capable of delivering 116 r (~1 Sv) in 20 seconds. British Pedoscopes were about ten times less powerful. A customer might try several shoes in a day, or return several times in a year, and radiation dose effects may be cumulative. A dose of 300 r can cause growth disturbance in a child, and 600 r can cause erythema in an adult. Hands and feet are relatively resistant to other forms of radiation damage, such as carcinogenesis.

“Although most of the dose was directed at the feet, a substantial amount would scatter or leak in all directions. Shielding materials were sometimes displaced to improve image quality, to make the machine lighter, or out of carelessness, and this aggravated the leakage. The resulting whole-body dose may have been hazardous to the salesmen, who were chronically exposed, and to children, who are about twice as radiosensitive as adults. Monitoring of American salespersons found dose rates at pelvis height of up to 95 mr/week, with an average of 7.1 mr/week (up to ~50 mSv/a, avg ~3.7 mSv/an effective dose). A 2007 paper suggested that even higher doses of 0.5 Sv/a were plausible. The most widely accepted model of radiation-induced cancer posits that the incidence of cancers due to ionizing radiation increases linearly with effective (i.e., whole-body) dose at a rate of 5.5% per Sv.”

An estimated 10,000 machines were sold in the US, 3,000 in the UK, 1,500 in Switzerland, and 1,000 in Canada before authorities began discouraging their use. It seems that several shoe salespeople later developed various forms of cancer, but no follow-up studies were ever conducted simply because nobody ever kept records of the people who had been exposed.

I find it interesting that Bill Reed, the owner and chief salesperson at the small Reed’s Footwear and Clothing store mentioned earlier, lived to be 88 years old; it appears that the fluoroscope did not affect his health very much! I suspect that other shoe store employees were not so fortunate.

22 Comments

And my Dad, perhaps wiser than most at the time, would not let us stand there long to continue to wiggle our toes, told us to get off the machine. When I asked why, he said, it may not be good for you to continue to stand on the machine. As his daughter, I always thought him to be a very wise man. 🙂

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I also remember seeing the bones in my feet in one of these machines, in the 1950’s.

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I am old enough to vaguely recall these devices but don’t recall using them much. One correction with your description “boxful of radioactive isotopes”. Those machines employed X-rays (generated by bombarding, in a vacuum, a heavy metal with high energy electrons) and there was no radioactive material in them, fortunately. Some radioisotopes do produce the equivalent in energy of standard X-rays but you can’t “turn off” radioactive decay. The gamma produced by the Cobalt-60 used in cancer therapy is actually about 10 to 15 times the energy of standard medical X-rays. The development of “intensifying screens” (about the 70s I believe) permitted the dosage of X-rays in medical use to be significantly lower than in the first decades of the application of X-rays and therefore greatly reduced possible genetic damage from being X-rayed.
The one area of the body that was at greatest risk of undesirable X radiation from these shoe-store machines was the groin area, which particularly for males (females to some extent as well) is not the best place to be exposed to X, which can damage DNA. These machines I assume were close in design to the medical X-ray devices of the era and so were not really a huge concern if only used rarely but nonetheless an obviously foolish rig to be in places like shoe stores where children especially would find them very intriguing. Of course just after Roentgen invented the X-ray generator in the late 1800s there was a period of time when these devices were actually used in social groups as a party entertainment.

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I remember getting it one time and then my Mother would not take me back to that store. Claimed it was dangerous as she was a volunteer @ a local hospital when she did her thing from 1954 to 2008 and some 38000 hours,

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I remember them too. Fascinating to kids. My mother was very aware of the hazard and forbade us to put our feet in to look at the eerie skeletal vision but alas, when she wasn’t looking, I did it anyway. Funny that shoe stores had these. The hazards of radiation were well known by the 50s. After all, Marie Curie herself died of radiation-related causes.

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We often went to our local Sears store for shoes. I was the oldest of a large bunch and had a lot of free time as the others were being fitted. Being a curios kid I checked all my foot bones making each toe wiggle. But I was thwarted in trying to see my hands then talked a sister into putting her hands where the foot went. I went on to major in biology in college and a biochemistry degree in grad school.

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My brother, sister and I experienced this about twice a year as we were growing and needing new shoes.

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I remember them from the 1940’s….Unfortunately, I don’t recall hearing anything about their danger. I was quite fascinating by the machines.

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They were the BEST part of going to the shoe store.

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One of those was how I learned that I had an extra bone in each foot.
Thanks for the update!

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As a seven or eight year old, I would enjoy seeing the bones in my feet while my mom and older sister tried on shoes. Fortunately this was not a regular occurrence. At the time I thought it was called a floor-o-scope.

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There was one at Goldblatt’s in Racine in the late 1950s/early 1960s. I never used it, as I didn’t buy shoes there. I always thought it was disconnected, but probably one needed a shoe salesperson to turn it on!

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My great uncle had one of these in his shoe store and my Dad would go in there every day on his way home from school to look at his feet. Dad lived to 93, so no harm done apparently.

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My grandfather worked in a shoe store with one of these machines. He worked in the store with another sales person and the owner for over 40 years. I have a keepsake picture of them in the store with shoes stacked along both walls from floor to ceiling with move ladders on wheels to glide down the wall to reach those up high. The fluoroscope machine is in the back by the cash register. All three men lived to be in their 70’s or longer. My grandfather had no ill effects from the machine from what I know. He died at age of 79 from emphysema due to a long history of smoking. As a young boy, I remember visiting him quite often in the store in downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming, which had a population of less than 30,000 in those days. I always wanted to see my feet and didn’t understand why I couldn’t do this for a longer time and also every time we went to the store. The machine looked much like the one in the photograph. I remember the machine had a rod in it that he would use to point out where a shoe might be to tight or too loose. Fun times as I remember my grandfather and visiting him in his store.
My grandfather loved shoes and I would always get a pair for Christmas. When I was probably 6 or 7, he kept trying to get me to open his present. I kept pushing aside for other presents. He asked me “Why aren’t you opening this present?” I replied, “It’s just another pair of shoes from you.”

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I remember something bigger than that, more modern. Banned in 1970 nation-wide as not safe.

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This is probably one story not expected about fluoroscopes, I too remember those when I bought my four children shoes in the ’50s, at a Stride-Right shoe store, but large-size fluoroscopes screens were used in hospitals. I had an ulcer and my doctor sent me to a hospital to be fluoroscoped to check the ulcer . He looked at it, turned around with a big smile,said the ulcer is healing and congratulations YOU’RE PREGNANT!!! It was in my first month and my second child. That was 1952.
Joan Parker

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My father-in-law owned a shoe store in Toronto, where we lived. He was on the job every day and had one of these in his store. I met my husband, his son there as he helped his dad every weekend and that’s where I bought almost all my shoes. Not only was I xrayed during those years and had no affects, My husband is 86 and his father lived to be 105 years old. He died of natural causes.

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In the 1940s, as a youngster, I enjoyed seeing the bones in my feet and wiggling my toes under the X-rays in a shoe store in Nashville, Tennessee. It only happened once and only briefly, because my father, who was a professor of biology and physiology, told me to take my feet away because the radiation was dangerous. How right he was! Thanks for the memories!

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I guess they must have already been gone by the time my mother was taking me for shoes. But I did encounter a different fluoroscope in November/December of 1978 in a doctor’s office in Sevilla, Spain where I spent my sophomore year in college. I got really sick then, and ended up in the emergency room there after having passed out while trying to stand up (good thing the landlady was right there next to me or I would have fallen on the tile floor in the kitchen). The emergency room doc referred me to the regular doc who had a fluoroscope there in his office. I was asked to stand in a particular spot so he could check my lungs, etc. I was then diagnosed with the flu; the one and only time I’ve ever actually had a real case of flu (extreme back pain and alternating fever and chills preceded passing out). I never want to have another case of flu or anything like it ever again, which is why I’m being particularly careful during this pandemic.

I have no idea how the doctor fared after having used that fluoroscope for who knows how many years right there in his office.

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I remember these devices, specifically for Buster Brown shoes. I always wanted to try them, but my mother, bless her heart, refused, in the belief that they were a hazard.

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My granddad owned a small town department store and his main business was selling shoes, so he had one of these xray machines for the feet! My sisters and I always xrayed our own feet when we were in his store which was often! Apparently, no harm done as here I am still standing on my own two feet at age 71! Years later after he retired and was selling his store, my husband and I were looking through stuff he had stored in the basement of the store, and there was that xray machine!

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I googled the danger of the shoe fluorscope and came upon this site when seeking information. In the 50s, my after-school job was at a small shoe store which had
one of these units. I worked at the store 3 yrs. in high school, then helped with the accounts as well as filling in as a clerk during my first two years of college. Two health events occurred in my life that I am beginning to attribute, at least in part, to the radiation I received as a clerk for so many years. The store was noted for proper fitting of shoes for children who needed special fitting of different types. Doctors would write out a prescription designating the foot problem that needed special attention. I do think it was reassuring to parents to visually check their child’s fitting. Fast forward — when my husband and I tried to have a child, doctors could find no medical reason why I couldn’t conceive, tried everything. Now I think infertility may have resulted, at least in part, from my exposure to the fluorscope. Also, many years later, I was diagnosed and went through extreme treatment, due to uterine serous cancer, a Type II cancer, which is one of the less common, but more serious types. I will never know for sure, as there is no way to track the effect these machines had, but there was never a thought/let alone discussion about the radiation involved.

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