|Mr. Brannock’s Device, ‘the quintessential example of inconspicuous consumption"|
By BERRY CRAIG
"When I tell people I work at the Brannock Device Company, they just look at me," Tim Follett says. "When I say we make that metal gizmo that measures your foot at the shoe store, they grin and say, ‘Oh, yeah!" Follett is vice president of the little company that is apparently the world’s biggest maker of gadgets for sizing the human foot. More than a million Brannock Devices have been made, all of them in Syracuse, New York, or in Liverpool, a Syracuse suburb. "We believe we are the only business anywhere on earth whose sole product is a foot-measuring device," Follett said. The Brannock Device itself is evidently the de facto shoe size standard in the United States. "As far as I know, the federal government has never adopted an official standard," Follett said. "But American footwear manufacturers pretty much go by the Brannock scale."
Almost anyone who has bought shoes knows what a Brannock Device is, but probably not what it is called. The Brannock is so utilitarian that people hardly notice it, even when shoe clerks size them with one. That qualifies the humble measurer as "the quintessential example of inconspicuous consumption," writes Paul Lukas in his book, Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, from the Everyday to the Obscure.
But the virtually ubiquitous and virtually unsung invention does get some appreciation beyond the shoe store. "It showed incredible ingenuity, and no one has ever been able to beat it," said Tibor Kalman, an industrial designer. "I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we get to the stars, or find out everything there is to know about black holes."
"The Brannock Device" is the name of a Toronto jazz band and a Kansas City alternative rock band. "Six guys run into a shoe store, pick up a little metal thing and go ‘ya!’ You get a reputation that way," explained guitarist Greg Vyrostko of the Canadian musicians’ group.
Guitarist Jeremy Schutte of the stateside Brannock Device, explained, "We named the band because our drummer, Bernie, worked at a shoe store during high school. He always wanted to name a band ‘The Brannock Device’ after looking at plenty of them during his employment. We all liked the name and it stuck."
The rock band "Size 14" has a Brannock Device on its compact disc album cover. Barney, the famous purple dinosaur, used the shoe sizer in one of his lessons for kids. In addition, a newsletter writer employs the pen name, "Brannock Device."
The device has appeared on TV. Brannocks have been used as props for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Leave it to Beaver," "Newhart" and "Saturday Night Live." Brannocks hang on the wall at Al Bundy’s storied shoe store in "Married With Children."
Vintage Brannock Devices, too, are part of the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection of historical artifacts and memorabilia. The Washington, D.C., museum also houses an extensive collection of Brannock company records.
Charles F. Brannock of Syracuse invented the "Brannock Scientific Foot Measuring Device," which the shoe industry reputedly welcomed as "the most accurate and practical measuring device known to orthopedic science." He made the first Brannock Devices in 1925, when he started the Brannock Device Company. Brannock earned the first patent on his foot measurer in 1928, and he ran his firm until 1992, when he died at age 89.
By far, the Brannock Device is the foot-measurer most commonly found in American shoe stores. But the sizers are also used worldwide. Even so, Charles F. Brannock’s name is not in history books, even those on inventors and inventions. That apparently suited Brannock. "He never really sought publicity for himself," said Gus Charles, retired Brannock Company accountant and the inventor’s longtime friend. "He was a private person."
Since 1925, airplanes have gone from biplanes to monoplanes and from propellers to jets. Henry Ford wouldn’t recognize what rolls off Ford assembly lines in Detroit. There is even a better mousetrap. "But the basic design of the Brannock Device has not changed," Follett said. "Mr. Brannock got it right from the start. It was the only thing he ever invented, apparently the only thing he ever wanted to invent."
Sal Leonardi, Follett’s father-in-law, bought the Brannock company from the Brannock estate in 1993. In 1997, Leonardi moved the firm from a small building downtown Syracuse to roomier quarters in Liverpool. He and Follett modernized production with computers. The company makes three basic models for sizing the feet of men, women and children. The firm also produces custom Brannocks for individual shoe companies and for specialized footwear, from ski boots to hockey skates. "Despite all of our new technology and new models, we feel there is no need to change the basic device he invented," Follett said.
Brannock grew up in the footwear business in Syracuse. In 1906, his father, Otis Brannock, and Ernest N. Park started the Park-Brannock Company, which became "one of the largest retail shoe stores in the country," the Syracuse Herald said. Charles Brannock made his first devices at the store. He wanted to help clerks do a better job of shoe fitting.
The most common foot-sizer in the 1920s was the Ritz Stick, made by the American Automatic Device Company of Chicago. A wooden ruler, the Ritz could measure a foot’s width and its length from heel to toe, but not at the same time.
While young Charles studied business administration at Syracuse University, he helped at the shoe store during vacations and in his spare time. "While working at [Park-Brannock]...he became imbued with the idea that an accurate foot-measuring apparatus which would permit of no mistakes in the fitting of shoes would be a boon to wearers of all shoes," the Herald reported.
Back on campus, Brannock would wake up nights at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house to scribble notes and make sketches of his invention. His roommate, Roy Simmons, Sr., complained. Brannock protested that he would forget his ideas if he waited until morning. According to Albert F. Baier, another fraternity brother, Brannock promised his roommate, "’Simmie’, I’m working on an invention, and If it works, I’ll cut you in on the dividends.’" When Brannock and Simmons saw each other in 1991, Simmons kidded Brannock about his dividend checks. Brannock joshed back, "‘Simmie,’ they’re in the mail."
Simmons, who coached lacrosse at Syracuse, and Brannock were lifelong friends. "I don’t know what inspired him," Simmons told Syracuse Post-Herald columnist Sean Kirst after the inventor died. "....Now I’ve seen that device all over the world, in Paris, in Japan, and I always think of him."
Brannock, who graduated from Syracuse in 1925, made the prototype for his device from his childhood erector set. In 1925, he sought a patent for the Brannock Device, explaining that his object was "a foot measuring instrument for accurately measuring either foot to determine accurately the size of the shoe, both as to length and width, best suited for the foot being measured." He said his device was "particularly simple in construction and easily operated and read by unskilled clerks."
Made of brightly polished aluminum, Brannock’s newfangled device measured the foot three ways at once: width, plus heel-to-toe length and length from the heel to the ball of the foot. "It is the heel-to-ball measurement, the most critical measurement in fitting shoes, that made his device unique," Follett said.
William A. Rossi, a shoe industry historian and author, agreed that the Brannock Device made foot-measuring more precise. "But in my view, the most important factor was that it looked more scientific than the size stick and, therefore, it upgraded the fitting process in the store."
Brannock emphasized the scientific angle when he marketed his devices nationwide. The 1920s was a decade of many new and wondrous inventions; many Americans began to view science almost like a religion. Promotional brochures introduced the Brannock Device as "a new and scientific instrument for correct foot measurement."
The inventor saw a psychological and sublime side to his device, calling its operation "intriguing" to customers. According to the brochures, the Brannock sizer was "a well-made, attractive looking device for measuring feet," meaning that "the heretofore unsightly fitting device now becomes an asset to the appearance of the shoe store."
Rossi said several other foot-measuring devices were invented through the years, but none came close to beating the Brannock. "The bottom line is that the Brannock was the simplest and most practical device that was available."
Brannock explained how his device worked to the Herald:
At first, the Brannock Device was exclusive to the Park-Brannock store. The unique sizer was supposed to attract more customers with the promise of better fitting footwear. While clerks measured hundreds of feet with the newfangled measurers, the inventor fine-tuned the devices at his in-store workshop. "...For two years after his graduation young Brannock fumed and figured and fretted and finally in 1927 perfected the device known today as the only accurate instrument by which feet of all sorts and sizes and degrees of shape can be fitted accurately," the Herald said. That same year, Brannock applied for another patent on his "perfected" device, which was granted in 1929.
For many years, Brannock produced only two types of sizers. His original Brannock Device sized the feet of men, women, boys and girls. In the mid-1930s, he invented a Junior or Juvenile Model for small children and toddlers. According to the company, "the Brannock ‘Juvenile’ is a "chip off the old block’ -- a great step forward in the protection of Juvenile Foot Health.’" Most of the Junior Models are shiny aluminum with black length and width scale plates. But in 1962, Brannock made some Junior devices in a "silver sand" finish with red scale plates. "We believe young customers will find it ‘more fun’ to have their feet measured with these colorful Junior Brannocks," he said. "This sand-like finish and red plates seem to delight the children and consequently please the salespeople we have found out in our testing." Brannock added that a Junior Device could be easily cleaned "...by simply washing it with any soap such as Ivory or Lava."
While he was serious about the benefits of the Brannock Device, some of his advertising featured humor. In 1935, he took out an ad in the hometown Herald which pictured a Brannock Device and one woman whispering in the ear of another, "I’ll bet you don’t know what this is." The ad suggested, "If you have been alert, you will remember whether or not your shoe dealer used this device to measure your feet the last time you bought a pair of shoes. If he did, he put your foot through the third degree in a G-Man manner...he got the correct answer...which means an accurate Ball-to-Heel...Toe-To-Heel...and Width measurement....’Syracuse Marches On’...to new laurels by taking the mystery and guesswork out of shoe fitting for Mr. and Mrs. America."
Brannock also published testimonials to his device in advertising brochures: "Wouldn’t take a hundred dollar bill for my machine;" "We are using your devices in all three of our stores, and all of our boys on the floor are enthusiastic about them;" and "It is as essential to the business as illumination is to the store."
A anonymous Syracuse educator’s poem to the Brannock Device did not make it into print:
The Brannock Device proved popular beyond Syracuse. Brannock personally promoted his invention at the store, in local newspapers and in national shoe trade publications. He urged shoe store owners to use the Brannock Device when they advertised their businesses. For many years, Brannock wore two hats at the National Shoe Fair in Chicago. He touted his device to shoe manufacturers and retailers while studying new shoe styles and trends for the Park-Brannock store.
Brannock’s marketing, personal and print, paid off for the inventor. By 1934, 24 shoe manufacturers distributed Brannock Devices. The list included top U.S. footwear makers such as the Brown, Florsheim, Freeman, Jarman, Nunn Bush, Red Cross, Selby, Vitality and Weyenberg companies. Another 18 independent retailers, including Park Brannock, and 15 chain stores -- Bostonian, Enna Jettick, I. Miller among them -- measured feet with Brannock Devices. In addition, Marshall Field and 19 other department stores were Brannock equipped. "...The shoe industry saw [the Brannock Device]..., approved it, and wanted it," the Syracuse Post-Standard said. So did the U.S. Navy, starting with the battleship Texas.
In 1931, Captain Guy E. Davis, the dreadnought’s executive officer, discovered that many of his sailors suffered foot problems. Poorly fitting shoes were suspected. Later, when the battleship’s supply officer happened to buy a pair of shoes at a San Francisco store, the clerk measured his feet with a Brannock Device. The shoes fit so well that the officer ordered a Brannock for the Texas. After the $15 sizer arrived in the mail from Syracuse, the ship’s 1,400 crewmen took turns getting their feet measured. New shoes were issued where needed and "foot troubles among members of the crew were entirely eliminated," Davis wrote.
The happy officer also contacted Brannock, suggesting he send "descriptive matter to all of the larger ships of the Navy so that they too might have the benefit of this device, because it stood to reason that all of the other vessels had the same foot troubles that they did on the Texas." Brannock agreed, also supplying information about the Brannock Device to naval training stations ashore. Several orders resulted, according to Brannock. "Among these orders was one from the United States Naval Clothing Depot in Brooklyn, where the device was put through a series of rigid tests for a period of six months," Brannock said in the Enna Jettick Retailer, a magazine published by the Enna Jettick Shoe Company of Auburn, New York.
The Brannock Device evidently passed with flying colors. "Suddenly one day in our mail came a communication form the Naval Clothing Depot, inviting us to enter into a formal contract with the United States Government to equip the entire U.S. Navy with Brannock Foot Measuring Devices," Brannock recalled. "Needless to say, I was thrilled and delighted." He also said that "with no solicitation on our part whatsoever, the merits of the device alone brought about an order for equipping the entire Navy."
Enna Jettick was part of the shoe industry that saw, approved and wanted Brannocks for fitting footwear. The company made women’s shoes, and Enna Jettick Retailers used 1929-patent Brannock Devices to fit them. Some of the foot-measurers came with decals advertising the "Enna Jettick Healthshoe" and its "Fashion Welt" design.
Brannock touted his device in The Enna Jettick Retailer, claiming that "shoe merchandising, to be successful and profitable, must be built on a firm foundation, the corner-stone of which is, indisputably, Correct Fitting." He added that "the shoe business...has a unique position in the mercantile world in that, unlike most businesses, it partakes of the nature of a profession. And the shoe salesman, like a doctor, has a distinct responsibility to his customers, because a mistake in the fitting of a shoe can easily endanger a person’s health." Brannock reminded Enna Jettick Retailer readers that "the crippled feet of today are the misfitted feet of yesterday."
Another Enna Jettick Retailer article said that good bedside manners were important when a doctor treated a patient. Likewise, the magazine urged shoe salesmen to practice proper "foot-side" manners. "Beside manner, atmosphere, showmanship -- call it what you will. It all breaks down to the same thing. You’ve got to make a fuss yourself if you want any importance attached to the think you are putting over. And this is just as true whether you are dealing with shoes and fitting devices as it is with stethoscopes and spotlights.
"Which brings us to the point:
"How’s your foot-side manner?
Brannock did more than wax eloquent about his device. He hopped trains and barnstormed the country, personally demonstrating his foot-measurer to customers like the Nisley shoe company of Columbus, Ohio. Nisley wanted Brannock Devices "as a means of establishing personalized fitting in our stores."
Brannock advised Nisley managers that in shoe fitting, "science alone is not enough because it has to be coupled up with the proper art. Then you have a selling appeal which is tremendously successful."
As he did in the Enna Jettick Retailer article, Brannock compared shoe fitters to doctors, suggesting that a good physician "...possesses the art of impressing the patients with this fact that he has this thorough knowledge of his science." Brannock added, ..."It is exactly the same in retail shoe merchandising."
Brannock suggested that when a woman goes shoe shopping, "She sees boxes -- boxes galore -- with numbers on them -- mysterious numbers at that. How can she know that the salesman will know which box to go to in order to get a shoe for her foot that is going to be the correct one? Here is where the Brannock Foot Measure comes into the picture to display this Art in shoe fitting."
Brannock said the "drama of carefully measuring the customer’s foot" with "this scientific looking instrument" immediately impresses her. "This salesman...goes to that wall of boxes, and does pick out the correct shoe...It fits...It is comfortable."
Brannock said it took only a quarter of a minute to measure the foot. "These few 15 seconds are certainly well invested when you realize that you are creating such an impression in the customer’s mind that you have her thinking with you, so to speak. Furthermore, you know exactly what size the foot requires, and you can go to your stock and get the correct size the first time....This factor, plus the confidence gained, enables you to close your sales many minutes quicker."
The I. Miller Shoe Company of New York City, which also manufactured women’s shoes and operated retail stores, used a custom-made Brannock Device. The Miller "Measuright For Accuracy in Fitting" device was designed to size both feet at the same time. As such, it was a forerunner of special "double-unit" Brannock Devices produced for the U.S. military in World War II. The Miller model was one of three new double-unit Brannocks the inventor sought a single patent for in 1934. He received it three years later.
When World War II began in Europe, the Brannock Device was a standby in shoe stores throughout the U.S. and overseas in Great Britain and other countries. More than 60,000 had been produced since 1927.
Great Britain was the largest overseas purchaser of Brannock Devices. Brannock sent several of the foot measurers to Britain via ship. As armed conflict approached in Europe in 1939, he took care to insure his sizers for "all risk & war."
World War II began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. As the U.S. prepared for war in May, 1941, Brannock met with officers of the Army quartermaster corps in Washington. The military brass "wanted him to work out a foot measuring system for the expanding army," the Post-Standard said. It was no easy task, but Brannock was glad to do his patriotic duty. "We are proud and happy to have a part in serving the best interests of good fitting shoes to the men and women going into the various Services of our country," he wrote to Edward Atkins of Women’s Wear Daily.
Brannock knew a civilian Brannock Device would not work for the military because Army shoes and boots were made on their own lasts. That meant size "scales and calibrations would be different from those of the system used in shoe stores." Too, "the effect of long marches on the feet of soldiers had to be taken into consideration."
After testing and experimenting with foot-measurers in army camps, Brannock invented a double-unit "Army Brannock Foot Measuring Machine" that sized "both feet at the same time, with speed and accuracy." Basically, the military sizer was two recalibrated civilian Brannock devices mounted side by side on plywood or masonite. Soldiers were lined up, measured and fitted, assembly-line style.
In his letter to Atkins, Brannock quoted from an article about the military Brannocks in the November, 1942, National Geographic magazine: "’By the new Brannock Fitting Machine it (the Army) can accurately measure both feet at once and insure an easy fit. A special toe-length indicator makes the device practically error-proof.’" The Post-Standard reported that "no man can march far if his shoe pinches or if it is too loose" and that "shoes fitted by this device strengthen the foot power of the nation’s fighting forces."
Ultimately, Brannock made many devices for the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. "In addition to having made approximately 1,000 Fitting Machines for the Army, we are also making Foot-Measuring Equipment for the Women’s Army Corps," Brannock explained. "WAC Training Stations are equipped with Brannock Devices of the Double Unit Type -- similar to the men’s Army Model, but calibrated of course to the regulation WAC shoe. The SPARS [Women’s Coast Guard Reserve] and the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Marine Corps also fit their Government Issue shoes by means of the Brannock Device." Brannock guessed that more than 5 million Army men, most sailors and Marines, and every WAC were fitted with Brannock Devices.
Shoe fitters who use Brannocks today know the all-aluminum measurers last a long time. The military measurers were durable, too, according to the inventor. "There are many of our first production Army Machines still in use [in 1943]...each of which has probably measured more than 100,000 feet," Brannock wrote.
The military seemed pleased with the special measurers. In early 1942, Captain Richard H. Harding wrote Brannock from Fort Lee, Virginia, that thanks to the Brannock Device "...we are doing exceptionally well in our shoe department." Harding said that 91.15 percent of the time, the shoe size indicated on the Brannock Device was the right size for the soldier fitted with the measurer. After World War II, Brannock shifted production of his devices away from the shoe store. After a brief stay in a small building on Oneida Street, Brannock opened a small plant at 509 East Fayette Street in 1947. "On the wall in the office at the factory is a map of the world," the Post-Standard reported. "Wherever a Brannock is in use a red pin is placed. The map of the United States resembles a cluster of flies."
Brannock sought his last patent in 1958 and earned it two years later. But that device evidently did not go into production or was made only in limited numbers, according to Follett. Even so, in his application, Brannock again stressed the importance of the sizer’s heel-to-ball measuring feature: "...It often happens that the fore part of the foot between the ball joint and the ends of the toes is either shorter or longer than the normal foot. Usually the fore part of the foot is shorter due to curled toes from previous misfitting. The taking of these two measurements permits the fitter to determine the correct shoe length size whether the foot is normal or abnormal."
For almost 40 years, shoe fitters used Brannock’s standard model device for fitting men’s and women’s shoes. To achieve the most accurate measurement, he recommended adding an extra width for a man’s foot and a full size for a woman’s.
In 1962, Brannock unveiled a green and silver Growing Girls’ model of the Brannock Device. "Due to the change that gradually came about in the fitting characteristics of growing girls’ shoes...I saw the need for a foot-measuring Device specifically calibrated for this purpose," he explained. "I saw this...several years ago in the Park-Brannock Store...and developed working models which we used in our Children’s-Growing Girls’ Department. The salespeople on this floor literally ‘blessed’ me..." Brannock himself was pictured in company fliers for the new measurer; the inventor posed anonymously as a "salesman seated" measuring the foot of a teenager."
Two years after introducing the Growing Girl’s device, Brannock debuted a special Women’s Model. He explained that "the fitting characteristics of women’s style shoes have changed so during the past few years." Brannock debuted the sizer almost like fashion footwear, characterizing it as "strikingly attractive" with "beautiful purple and silver scale plates." Perhaps seeking a more "feminine" hue for his foot-sizers, Brannock also made a few Women’s Models with pink toe length scale plates.
In 1981, the Park-Brannock store closed. Charles Brannock had run the business since 1962 when both his father and Park died. The Brannock Device Company stayed at its East Fayette Street address until Leonardi moved operations to 116 Luther Avenue, Liverpool, in 1997. Here, production of Brannock Devices topped the one million mark. Thanks to Kalman, one found its way into a 1992 industrial design exhibit in New York City. "There is not an ounce of waste in this device, and not a single needless motion," Kalman told the New York Times. "It is slick and pure (for its function) as an egg." But the device is not nearly as fragile, Follett said, adding, "A Brannock Device is almost indestructible unless maybe you ran over one with a truck."
Edith James, owner of the Comfort Shoe Specialists store in St. Louis, still uses a 1929 patent Brannock. Brannock boosters like her are legion. None are more loyal than John Knotts of Louisville and Alan Hemsley of Southampton, England.
"We don’t sell shoes, we fit shoes," said Knotts, owner of Knotts’ Shoe stores. "The Brannock Device removes a lot of the doubt from shoe fitting. We’ve been using them for years and years." Hemsley, a retired shoe retailer, has taught footwear fitting courses for the British Society of Shoe Fitters. "I regard my Brannock in much the same way a good violinist praises a good instrument," he told the British publication, Shoe and Leather News. "...I do like my Brannock and would long sing its praise. It is a pity they are finished in silver, for they are worthy of gold."
Lukas sees the Brannock as almost existential. "...I find that if you describe the Brannock Device to anyone -- anyone -- they’ll most likely say, ‘Oh yeah, thing’s really cool -- I never thought about it before.’ Precisely. Moreover, most of us encounter the Brannock Device during childhood, which means our Brannock memories tend to be simultaneously primal and nostalgic -- a potent combination."
Berry Craig is a professor of history at Paducah (Kentucky) Community College and a freelance journalist who writes for the Associated Press in his native Bluegrass State. In 2002, Craig received the Kentucky Historical Society’s Richard H. Collins Award, which is given annually to the author of the article in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society judged to have made the most outstanding contribution to the history of the state in the previous twelve-month period. Craig lives in Mayfield, Ky., with his wife, Melinda, and their 9-year-old son, Berry IV.