…and then my feet fell off

From the file:  “you did WHAT when you were young…??”

Imagine for a minute that you are a five years old again.  

There’s a kid-size cabinet in front of you.  If you stick your feet into it, you can look in the top and see the bones in your feet and watch them move as you wiggle your toes.  You’d think that was pretty neat, wouldn’t you?

I did.  

Machines like that used to be in shoe stores in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s — when I was a youngster living in Glasgow, Scotland. I remember that they’d be the first stop I’d make when my Mom took me with her shoe-shopping.  If it hadn’t been for her caution, I’d have been sticking my feet in those things and pushing the x-ray button over and over.

Yes —  x-rays.  Technically they were called fluoroscopes.

The sales people used them to reassure customers about the fit of their shoes.  For kids, they were a great toy. And for many parents I’m sure it was a great way to keep the kiddies happy.

It was just one of 3000 such machines in Britain at the time. There were also 10,000 in the United States, and another thousand in Canada.  Originally the machine was built to help diagnose WW1 soldiers’ foot injuries without having to remove their boots.   Then it turned up at a Boston shoe retailer’s convention by 1920 and was patented by 1927.  

The mechanism shot x-rays upwards through my shoes and feet onto a fluorescent screen on which I could see the image.  If I had actually been trying on new shoes, my Mom and the sales person could also see the image because there were multiple viewing ports. 

As originally built, the machine had a shield (steel or aluminum, but not lead…).  But, sometimes those were removed to improve the image quality and machines were sometimes poorly maintained. 

Accordingly, x-rays would bathe the bodies of customers and salesmen with radiation. (The 20-second blast of x-rays delivered half the radiation of a modern chest CT-scan.)  At their worst they could deliver hazardous doses of radiation that were up to three hundred times the permissible limit, reaching those seated in the waiting area.  And of course, little kiddies didn’t just use the machine once…   and neither did customers trying on multiple pairs of shoes.

The most at risk were the salesmen.  A 1957 issue of The British Medical Journal describes the case of a 56-year-old woman with severe pain and skin damage on her right leg and foot consistent with radiation burns. As it turned out, she had been working in a shoe shop for ten years and operated the shoe-fitting fluoroscope 15 to 20 times a day. Sometimes she’d repeatedly put her own foot into the apparatus to show scared kids that “it did not hurt”.

Even though society had a vague understanding of the dangers of radiation, the first warnings about the machines were not issued until 1950. Over the next few decades, they were gradually pulled out of stores but even in the late 1970s, a member of the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industries stepped into a “corner store” in Boston only to find one of the machines still in use. The store’s owner was letting children take a look at their feet through the machine if they bought 10 cents worth of candy! The last one, in West Virginia, wasn’t decommissioned until 1981.

While it seems crazy now to have exposed yourself to that kind of radiation (on purpose!), it didn’t seem that outlandish in an era where it wasn’t so easy to research the latest data and the safety record of such machines. It’s just another example of how different a world our parents lived in and how difficult it is to relate to what would have been the norms and mores of ages gone by. It really was another world and one that doesn’t exist any more.

This one jogs my memory — I think the ones I used looked kind of like this…

As friends read the posts on this blog, they often tell me they’re amazed by the things I remember — most of which, of course, turns out to be totally useless information.

But even though it’s almost 60 years since I slipped my feet into one of these babies and marveled the sight of my wiggling toe bones, I still remember it clearly — obviously it left a deep impression.

And I think that if it wasn’t for my Mom, I’d be telling you…

… and then my feet fell off.

Any of you remember these machines?


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