Stores

Tools of the Trade: How the Brannock Device helped the shoe industry put its best foot forward

After it was invented in 1925, it became a fixture in shoe stores and an unlikely hero in World War II.
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Brannock Device Corporation/Smithsonian National Museum of American History

· 5 min read

There are devices in the retail world we take for granted. Let’s stop doing that.

The Brannock Device

  • Patented: 1929
  • First patent holder: Charles F. Brannock

If the shoe fits: As a young man in the 1920s, Charles Brannock worked in the Park-Brannock shoe store co-owned by his father, Otis C. Brannock, and Ernest N. Park in Syracuse, New York.

Figuring out what size brogues to bring customers, he discovered, was complicated. An early foot-measuring tool, the Ritz Stick, invented by Oliver C. Ritz-Woller, who received a patent in 1916, was essentially a glorified wooden ruler. Still sold today, the Ritz Stick has a fixed heel block and a slidable toe block to measure length; turning it 90 degrees and repositioning the foot measures width.

What if, Brannock wondered, a device could measure the length and width simultaneously?

Foot in the door: As a student at Syracuse University, Brannock would awake in the middle of the night, ideas percolating, to make sketches and notes for a new foot-measuring device, according to a 2000 article in Invention & Technology.

He built the prototype on his childhood Erector set, then began to manufacture the Brannock Device in 1925, according to an article from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which maintains a collection of Brannock Device Company records and papers.

By 1926, a national sales force began doing brisk business with shoe stores. In 1927, at 24, Brannock applied for a patent for the device, which was granted in 1929. The device proved popular abroad as well, with patents or trademarks secured in more than 20 countries, beginning with Great Britain and Canada in 1929.

Boots on the ground: A big break came in 1933 when, according to the Smithsonian article, a Navy captain complained to a shoe salesman about widespread foot problems on his ship.

Using a Brannock Device, the salesman discovered that the problem was not with the shoes the sailors were issued but rather that many wore the wrong size. After the captain wrote glowingly about the device in the July 1933 issue of the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Brannock used the article to promote the device throughout the military, according to the Smithsonian article.

By World War II, Brannock had made a special conjoined version of the device for branches of the military that enabled the left and right feet to be measured simultaneously.

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To date, the company—based outside of Syracuse, in Liverpool, New York—said it has sold more than a million of the devices.

Beyond measure: The Brannock Device is “a universal touchstone in our culture,” the journalist Paul Lukas told Vice in 2016. “There’s literally nobody in America you can think of whose foot has not been in a Brannock Device at some point.”

And yet “almost nobody knows what it’s called,” Lukas added. “So it’s simultaneously ubiquitous and anonymous, which to me is a very powerful combination.”

So powerful, in fact, that on his 39th birthday, in 2003, Lukas got a tattoo of the Brannock Device on his arm.

Left to their own devices: Footwear brands including New Balance, Payless, and Merrell customize the devices with their logos.

The ultimate customization, though, came in 1996, when The Athlete’s Foot was running a biggest-feet contest and needed something larger than the standard device, which measures up to only a men’s size 16.

So the company made two devices calibrated up to a size 35 for the contest, which was won by the late actor Matthew McGrory, who measured a size 29 1/2.

Going toe to toe: Today, the Brannock Device Company makes a dozen versions, most priced at $82.95, for men, women, and children in US, UK, European, and centimeter-based sizing.

But high-tech competitors are getting a foothold:

  • Stockholm-based Volumental makes 3D scanners that gather 10 different foot measurements in five seconds. Brands including Hoka, Red Wing Shoes, and New Balance use the devices in stores.
  • Introduced on the Nike app in 2019, Nike Fit measures feet through scanning.

The game is afoot: The analog still has diehard fans, though, especially in the Syracuse area, where it’s manufactured.

In 2018, the Minor League baseball team, the Syracuse Mets (then the Chiefs), paid tribute to the Brannock Device. In a game against the Toledo Mud Hens, the team took the field as the “Devices,” sporting jerseys with an anthropomorphized version of the foot measurer.

As it happens Lukas writes a column about sports uniforms, Uni Watch, which has run, among other places, in Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com. He threw out the first pitch.

To mark the occasion, he had his then 15-year-old Brannock Device tattoo reinked, and when he posted an image to Twitter, someone asked why he had it.

“It’s my Very Favorite Object,” Lukas responded, “for reasons that can’t be explained in 280 characters.”

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