Buying shoes used to be a big to-do. You’d have to physically go to a specific shoe store, have a stranger measure your tootsies from heel to toe, and walk up and down the aisles taking each potential pair for a spin. It was a lot of work, even without the risk of deadly radiation exposure.

Yep, shoe stores used to routinely expose their customers to dangerous hazards, though neither the shoppers or the sales associates were aware. Damage continued for decades until science finally exposed the problem. Today, experts are still trying to figure out how much damage was truly done.

The idea was born with good intentions. Somewhere along the line, somebody thought it would be beneficial to see straight through your shoes to see how well they fit, effectively eliminating questions about how much room there was for your toes.

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And while the thought of cutting out that part of the process where you wiggle each little piggy and pace back and forth is pretty appealing, there are just some things that shouldn’t be simplified. But curiosity got the better of the shoe business on this one.

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People point the finger in several directions over who first conceptualized the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, though the most commonly credited with the invention was Dr. Jacob Lowe since his paper trail went back the furthest. He filed a patent for the idea in 1919.

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It was seven more years before the patent was granted, but Dr. Lowe wasted no time shopping his invention around at various medical conventions. The novelty of the machine really grabbed an audience. Who wouldn’t want to look at the bones in their feet? / Courtesy of Mel Rubenstein

The machine itself resembled a wooden podium with a little attached step. A prospective shoe store customer would stand on the step, slip their feet into the opening, then look through the viewfinder to see their X-rayed tootsies.

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In fact, the shoe-fitting fluoroscope boasted three separate viewfinders, one for the salesman to assess the correct fit, one for the customer, and an extra for the friend or parent who tagged along to the store.

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With the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, everyone could achieve that perfect Cinderella glass slipper fit. Right there in the store, you’d get a crystal clear look at how your feet filled out each pair, which made each visit and X-ray an experience bordering on an attraction.

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In those early years, no one batted an eyelash over the potential hazards of X-raying your feet with reckless abandon. It was a technological advancement that was also pretty fun to use. Everyone could see the merits of having these machines in shoe stores. / Courtesy of Mel Rubenstein

Shoe stores all over the United States and eventually Canada, the UK, and Switzerland installed the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes to draw customers to try the cutting edge technology. It quickly became an industry standard.

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Sometimes called the pedoscope, the X-ray shoe fitter, or just the plain old foot-o-scope, these bad boys were operated hundreds of times each day. You didn’t need a special license, it was just the task of any regular sales associate.

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Nobody seemed to think twice about the long term ramifications to all those X-rays, not until decades later. Nope, the focus was more on selling the pseudoscience. Leaving the customer with a memorable experience and a lighter wallet was the top priority.

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By the 1950s there were over 10,000 fluoroscopes in shoe stores across the United States. Part of the marketing technique was to guilt parents, mothers primarily, by insinuating having children with improperly fitted shoes was a moral failing.

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“With this apparatus,” read an excerpt from Dr. Lowe’s original patent, “parents can visually assure themselves as to whether they are buying shoes for their boys and girls which will not injure and deform the sensitive bones and joints.” Everyone was getting their foot scanned.

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As years passed, science started catching up to the shoe store death machines. We learned more about the long-term effects of radiation exposure, most glaringly seen in the health problems suffered by the survivors of atomic bombings.

Since shoe-fitting fluoroscopes weren’t regulated, each manufacturer made their machines a bit differently. So by default, the amount of radiation seeping out of each one was not the same.

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Given the proximity to the X-ray, customers were obviously directly exposed to radiation through their feet. But that’s not all. Machines had leakages at a variety of weak points, in the abdomen area, or sometimes, whole body dosages.

The ones most affected by the radiation pumping shoe-fitting machines were the ones instructed to sell the gimmick. Sales associates in shoe stores operated the fluoroscopes hundreds of times a day, unknowingly poisoning themselves over and over.

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It took until the 1970s for shoe-fitting fluoroscopes to get universally banned, though they’d already trickled out of fashion. This was bolstered by documented amputations brought on by complications from radiation exposure, as well as numerous related cases of foot cancer.

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There wasn’t much of a reaction to the fact that people used unregulated radiation machines in shoe stores for decades without a care in the world. It became another forgotten chapter of history that makes you shake your head in disbelief.

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Casual radiation exposure was hardly exclusive to shoe stores. At the turn of the 20th century, scientists were woefully ignorant about the side effectn. It ruined many lives, including the women commonly referred to as the Radium Girls.

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Like many single women in the midst of World War I, Grace Fryer looked forward to getting a factory job. She would be able to support herself and enjoy life as an independent woman. What she didn’t foresee, however, was that she’d become an icon.

Grace found quite a few promising job leads in Orange, New Jersey, but then she hit the jackpot: a new company called the United States Radium Corporation was paying three times the average wage and selling the hottest product on the market.

Their goods all contained radium, an element discovered by chemist Marie Curie in 1898. It had strange properties, including a steady glow. By the time she isolated the substance in 1910, people were naturally looking for ways to make money from it.

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In the eyes of Dr. Sabin von Sochocky, radium was a miracle. Other physicians were already putting it in medicine and tonics, but Sochocky realized that radium paint made products light up. He founded the Undark brand, which took off almost immediately.

With more demand than they could handle, the USRC hired thousands of eager women to fill their factories. When Grace got word of her acceptance in 1917, she couldn’t believe her luck. But high wages wouldn’t be the only thing she received from her new job.

Grace befriended colleagues, including the bespectacled Catherine Donohue, and learned the ropes. Each time they coated the dials of watches with radium paint, workers earned a small payment. These “Radium Girls” invented a special trick to work even faster too.

Bill McGill

Because the bristles of their paintbrushes tended to flare out every few minutes, the factory foreman recommended “lip-pointing.” This practice had the women touching the brushes to their lips to make it narrow. Of course, it left a little radium paint behind.

But this residue didn’t matter since the employees were already covered in radium. Some even painted their nails and teeth with it — a nifty way to impress dates. The company said radium cured all kinds of diseases, so Grace and her friends didn’t worry — at first.

By 1922, Grace’s coworker Maggie Moll complained of a toothache. A dentist pulled the troublesome tooth, but soon the pain spread to a different area. During her next visit, the dentist lightly touched her jaw. He felt the bone crumble beneath his skin.


Maggie wasn’t the only one with problems. Many other employees, most only in their 20s, developed mouth pain and arthritis. Catherine confided that a tumor had begun to grow in her pelvic area. When Maggie died a year later, the women panicked.

Grace, Catherine, and three others joined together to stop the epidemic. Through the grapevine, they heard that USRC workers were dying all over the country. There was something seriously wrong, and they resolved to get to the bottom of it.

After hearing their complaints, the company brought in doctors to assess the workers. Unfortunately, physicians in the past could easily sway to capitalist influence. Not only did they say the radium was harmless, but they blamed the women’s issues on syphilis.

Management clearly would deny wrongdoing at every turn. Meanwhile, the Radium Girls’ condition worsened. Barely able to leave their homes, many had to leave their jobs. Grace and her friends knew they needed help, so they reached out to an expert on radium.

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They got in contact with Marie Curie, who confirmed that the radium paint caused their medical maladies. The good news stopped there, unfortunately. Curie — with some firsthand knowledge — stated that there was no cure for radiation poisoning.

Essentially, the Radium Girls received their death sentence. But Grace refused to give up. With their remaining time on Earth, they chose to take a stand for the workers and sue the USRC. However, they found little support.


As the Great Depression seized the nation, many Americans couldn’t believe these women wanted to take down a viable company. Still, the Radium Girls stood their ground. They finally got an official court date by 1938, though time was running out.

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Grace Fryer passed away in 1933, and Catherine was not far behind. Too weak to enter the courtroom, she testified from her bedside. Lawyer Leonard Grossman rushed to compile their case — that alone would determine the legacy of these women.

The Radium Corporation couldn’t slip away this time. The courts ruled in favor of the Radium Girls! In addition to covering all medical expenses and damages, the decision mandates companies to provide protection for workers everywhere.

Unfortunately, the plaintiffs didn’t enjoy their victory for long. Catherine, along with many others, died just months later. Today, their graves still retain enough radiation to set off a Geiger Counter.

NPR Illinois

Nobody can say that the Radium Girls were anything but heroic. Thanks to recent books and dramatic productions, Americans are finally recognizing their win as a shining moment in history.

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