You’ll never believe how 1930s sales assistants measured your shoe size!

I’ve blogged before about the joy of scrolling through our online collections catalogue. Millions of objects, just waiting to be discovered and shared. Usually, my discoveries are delightful. I’ve tweeted about groundbreaking (literally ground breaking) copper colliders, Instagrammed mystery Moomins, Facebooked ridiculous(ly fashionable) McQueen boots, and waxed lyrical about life-saving water purification equipment. And then sometimes I come across a listing which makes me think, “what the…”

Like the Pedoscope. Or the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, to give it its Sunday name. Pedoscopes were used in mid 20th-century shops to measure customers’ feet. Shops with one installed claimed to offer a better fit and value-for-money. So far, so normal. But how did the mysterious pedoscope do this, I hear you say? Well… by x-raying your foot.

Pedoscope advertisement

That’s right. Eighty, sixty, even forty years ago, you might expect to find a large x-ray machine in the middle of a shop. Think about how careful we are today when it comes to radiation dosage and exposure, and you’ll see why the pedoscope warranted further investigation.

Our pedoscope, which will be on display in our new Science and Technology galleries this July, dates from the 1930s. Made by the The Pedoscope Company Ltd of St Albans, it would have been used to take x-ray images of a customer’s feet with their new pair of shoes on.

The x-ray machine itself is stored at the very bottom of the lead-lined oak frame. To use it, you’d place your foot in the platform at the bottom while the shop assistant would view the x-ray on a fluorescent screen through the viewer at the top. Interested shoe-shoppers and concerned guardians could use another two viewers to see for themselves. Far from being crowded at the top, the three viewing points actually demonstrate just how popular these machines were with customers. Across the Britain, Europe and the United States, more than 15,000 of the machines were installed.

A pedoscope in use

But just because it’s a popular application of science and technology doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you. While our machine doesn’t, several other pedoscopes in museums have warning placards attached. This is because in 1958, the Home Office required all pedoscopes to display this safety notice: “Repeated exposure to X-rays may be harmful. It is unwise for customers to have more than twelve shoe-fitting exposures a year.” With no official way to record who had their feet screened when, this limit was never really enforced. The lack of regulation was an important factor in the decision to phase the machines out during the 1970s.

pedoscope fitting record

And it wasn’t just customers who were exposed to the radiation; shop assistants were called on to fit shoes many times a day and increasing concerns for their health led to medical studies. A 1950 study published in California Medicine raised concerns about the effect of x-rays on bone growth, while the British Medical Journal examined the role they played in skin and bone-marrow damage. By 1957, the BMJ was reporting a case of chronic dermatitis in an assistant exposed to “very large doses of X-rays”. In 1958, the same year the Home Office called for safety warnings, the Medical Research Council called for an outright ban: “we hope that the use of X-rays in shoe-fitting will be abandoned except when prescribed for orthopaedic reasons.”

At the moment, our pedoscope is waiting patiently in our Collections Centre for the new galleries to open. Science curators Tacye and Sophie are busy planning how to dress its display case, sourcing vintage shoes to add ambience. A quick check with our shoe-collecting colleagues in Art and Design unearthed these beauties.

Yes you will go to the ball! Taking votes on case dressing. Do you have a favourite? #museum #shinyshiny #shoes

A photo posted by Sophie Louise (@sophgoggs) on

But they weren’t quite what was called for. Keen to evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia, Sophie and Tayce thought these shoes were rather more sophisticated than that. So naturally, they took to the Internet. Much like how our online collections search fascinates me, auction sites like eBay are quickly becoming a curator’s new stomping ground. Setting up an alert for vintage Clarks children’s shoes led our intrepid curators to these 1940s girls’ Mary Janes. In an apt twist of fate, they’re a style Clarks called “Curator” at the time.

So there you have it, the dark side of indulging a shoe obsession. Get on your dancing shoes this summer and come see the pedoscope for yourself.

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