A lump of die-cast metal. To one side a beak-shaped slide points at a calibrated scale. Opposite, another orthogonal slide designed to press, if not squish, the contents of the machine. More scales and gauges carpet the floor of the central area. Yet more calibrations adorn the slide on the far side. A modernist, machined, eugenicist’s dream from an era when desks had to be sturdy to take the weight of their typewriters and mass production was refined enough to produce shoes for a wider variety of feet. The Brannock Device.
Its creation is usually related in Edisonian terms. The march of progress and the triumph of the hero inventor. In a 1920s word full of bunions, aching toes and blisters, the son of a shoe-shop owner thinks there is a better way. In a workshop at the back of the store, he tinkers underneath one of Edison’s bulbs until he emerges with the prototype. Charles F. Brannock blinking in the light of a brighter future, introduces his device to his father’s customers. Then more shops buy his product, he steps up production and invests in machine tools. Eventually it’s adopted by U.S. army to ensure the millions of troops marching into World War II would do so with better-fitting boots. Ever since, children have had put their stockinged feet into the Brannock Device and felt the cold tickle as shoe-shop assistants tell their mothers how surprised they are with the speed of growth of their child’s feet.
There have been many other devices to measure feet. Before Brannock there was the RITZ Stick. A strip of wood with a back block, a slide and a simple measurement scale. Put the foot inside, move the slide to the tip of the big toe then read off the size from the scale. The wooden construction reflects the wooden lasts cobblers have been using for centuries to construct shoes. Wood as well as leather is a material with which shoemakers feel at home. Cheap and simple to make, easy to use, but not that precise. And there’s so much more that can be measured. Post Brannock, in the radium age comes the shoe-fitting fluoroscope from Milwaukee. Radium painted dials and X-rays bring even more accuracy, comfort and health, as well as a non-negligible risk of high radiation doses for the grinning shoe-shop assistants using them many times every day.
The Brannock Device hails from the era before economies of scale and managed logistic chains had reached the world of the shoe salesman. Stores were owned by individuals who dealt with suppliers and manufacturers directly. They ordered stock to suit their local sales strategies. A patented and trademarked tool, once established as a standard could thrive in this business environment. There was no threat from a larger organisation looking to save pennies and introduce their own, cheaper, non-patented tool throughout their regional chain of stores, piling them high, selling them cheap, and always mindful of profit margins. Stick to the RITZ stick methodology, and make it out of plastic. Metalwork is just too pricey.
Let’s face it what is a shoe-size anyway? There are so many different standards. UK, US, EU sizes, all based on those venerable units of length, the barleycorn and the Paris point. There are children’s sizes, women’s sizes, military sizes. NATO uses the ISO Mondopoint shoe-sizing standard. Not many other people do. Width fittings, where still used, are represented by letters in North America and in the UK, but the UK letters mean different things to the US letters, while Europe just uses millimetres. Most of Asia uses a system based on centimetres which seems relatively sane. Increasingly manufacturers are using their own interpretation of shoe-sizes, meaning the numbers just indicate how relatively large the shoe is within that range. A size 8 in one line of shoes may not be the same as a size 8 in another.
Manufacturing shoes to standard sizes only dates back to the 1860s. Even the differentiation between left and right shoes only really started in the 19th century. Until then you wore what fitted unless you were exceedingly rich and had bespoke lasts made to the shape of your feet. A shoe-maker with a spokeshave smoothed and shaped a block of wood to the same shape of your foot over which a leather shoe could be formed. It was kept so that every pair of shoes you bought were made to perfectly fit. This still happens at bespoke shoemakers such as Foster & Son in London.
But like so many other technologies, warfare drove shoe manufacturing innovation. Mass production came in during the Napoleonic Wars with a boot riveting machine invented by Marc Brunel. It was the American Civil War that saw the breakthrough. Although many Confederate soldiers fought barefoot, it became necessary to standardise the size of boots of everyone else. This minimised foot-related maladies with all the marching that was going on. Soldiers had their feet measured on entering service and carried that number for the rest of the war. 20 years later, Edward B. Simpson introduced the first shoe-sizing system based on measurement to the shoe-buyers of New York.
Under the scientific surface of the Brannock Device and its hero inventor lurks an industry reluctant to adopt standards and sales staff keen to promote the idea of healthy, pain-free feet for all. Now that athletic performance, heel-height and fashionable design are higher up the agenda of prospective shoe purchasers, The Brannock Device is left abandoned in the stockroom. The Park-Brannock Shoe Co. the six-story shoe store based in the Park-Brannock building on South Salina Street in Syracuse, closed in 1981. Going under as it became overwhelmed by chains with lower overheads and the expansion of the Hotel Syracuse next door. Charles Brannock himself ran the Brannock Device Co. until his death in 1992. They still churn them out, but the market for them is niche. Just don’t drop one on you foot.