Our Village as Cold War Sentinel

These days our lives are often affected by preparations for and reactions to acts of terrorism – the threat of terrorists hijacking airplanes, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, armed gunmen walking into schools, businesses, and movie theaters.  We are all vulnerable to these acts of violence – deadly and horrifying, but also localized in their effects.  A recent, random comment from an e-mail correspondent reminded me of a much greater, more pervasive terror under which we Clarksonians have all lived, every day, for decades.  Since the early 1950s, we have been vulnerable to attack by an enemy armed with nuclear weapons, and in the beginning the Village of Clarkson had a role in protecting the U.S. from this threat.


Imagine looking up into the 1950s skies and seeing a flight of Russian bombers, carrying atomic bombs, each capable of obliterating a city.  Jetting in over the Arctic Circle, these enemy airplanes might drop their nuclear bombs on northern cities, potentially including Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, before they could be detected and stopped.  In the 1950s that scenario was a real possibility, and the United States helped protect itself from a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack by expanding a program of civilian volunteers called the Ground Observer Corps (GOC).

The use of civilian observers to sound the alert about enemy aircraft goes back to WWI, when the British watched for German Zeppelins.  Civilian ground observers really got cranked up during WWII, in England during the Blitz, and in coastal cities of the United States as an inexpensive and effective means of avoiding another Pearl Harbor.  As the war wound down, so did the GOC ; it was dis-established in 1944. But it started up again in 1950, when Russia demonstrated that it possessed both a workable nuclear bomb and long-distance bombers to deliver it.  One radio spot darkly announced  “It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.”  The Cold War GOC brought local Civil Defense agencies together with the military services.  During the decade of the 1950s, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts.



Clarkson was a proud participant in the GOC in the mid-1950s.  Many citizens in town and countryside were involved, but it is so long ago that the memories of its organization and activities have faded.  Synthesizing the bits and pieces of the observers’ recollections, our GOC program went something like this:

The Clarkson GOC was organized by the Clarkson Fire Department, and Lumir Prazak was the Fire Chief at that time.  The adults who were involved took turns observing aircraft flying over the area only at night.  They would gather at the new high school on the south end of Clarkson and lie on the lawn looking up at the night sky.  Whenever a plane was observed, they would report the observation by telephone in the high school.  A surprising number of aircraft were observed late at night, and the men reported the time and the direction of flights.  Initially, the GOC was comprised of adult men –  Al Dusatko, Lumir Prazak, Vince Prazak, Ron Vavrina, Slavy Vodehnal, Louis Pavel, Dick Moore, maybe Doc Odvarka were mentioned.  There doesn’t seem to have been any adult women involved in watching the night skies.

Later, high school kids and even grade schoolers took their turns watching for enemy airplanes during daylight hours.  Eleanor Sousek Loseke, Edie Kudrna Welch, Avis Studnicka Heithoff, Edith Novotny Nepper, Arlys Dolesh Wehrer, Robert Prazak, and Gene Cinfel were among the high school students who participated.  Grade school observers included Bernice Studnicka Cada, Rich Neuhaus, Dennis Houfek, Tony Dusatko, and Bill Sixta.  There were meetings at the school to give the students guidance and information.  There was usually, but apparently not always, adult supervision of the juvenile GOC members.

Even the Girl Scouts got in on the action.  Evelyn Zrust, troop leader of the Senior Girls Scouts, combined enemy plane identification (taught by Mike Hammond and Bob Jonas) with a first aid class. The girl scouts were given books for instruction and plane recognition; they met twice a month, and after passing a test they began observing, as a troop, on Sundays.  At other times, the Girl Scouts were paired up and did 3 or 4-hour shifts on weekends.

In the beginning there was no building available; volunteers lay in the grassy area on the south side of the new high school (before it became a parking lot), and if they saw anything notable would go into the high school to phone it in.  Later, a building was dragged or erected near the high school to house the observers.  Initially, an old, windowless, cob-shed type of building was used that was perhaps 6’ X 8’ in size. It was propped up on the front to level it out, with a handrail across the front; there may have been a porch.  Later a deer stand sort of building on stilts was constructed, elevated one story above the ground.  Steps went up from the west side and there were lots of windows.  The building was unheated, but it had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it protected observers from the elements.  The buildings had their own dedicated telephone for dialing up (what they believed was) Offutt Air Force Base/Strategic Air Command Headquarters, or perhaps the Civil Defense Office in Omaha.  In fact, the calls went to one of 73 “filter centers,” where yet more civilian volunteers collected the data, plotted trajectories of aircraft that had been called in, and made judgments about the significance of the observations (Clymer 2013).

The dedication of Clarkson’s youth to fighting the Cold War was not absolute.  By one  account, most of the time the kids did not stay in the building, but could be found goofing around outside waiting for a plane to fly over.  For example, Bernice Cada wrote: “My most vivid memory from this world-saving practice included Bill Sixta. Several of us started collecting ears of corn from the neighboring field. We had a corn kernel fight. I placed one throw perfectly into Bill’s ear canal. As we tried to remove it, it just wedged tighter! He had to go visit Dr. O’Neil to get the kernel removed. I was scared and embarrassed. Thought I would lose my volunteer job!  But those Russians never made it past our watchful eyes.”

In fact, Clarkson’s young were not the only ones to occasionally let their “eternal vigilance” slip.  Public participation in the GOC never reached the levels hoped for, owing to skepticism about government’s warnings of the imminence of a Russian attack and optimism about the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to detect and intercept enemy planes before they got to the continental U.S.  “By all indications, even the Soviet Union’s possession of an H-bomb [in August 1953] did not stir much desire to volunteer for the GOC.  Recruitment remained a chronic problem.  An Air Force report noted that, absent an emergency, the vast majority of Americans would rather play bridge [or taroks?], watch television, or go to bed.  By mid-1954, … a major problem had developed with attrition of volunteers who faced disparagement of friends or acquaintances.” (Clymer 2013).

There were posters on the walls of the observation building to provide information about friendly and unfriendly airplanes, and a book of silhouettes of planes was used to help in identifying what they were seeing.  Binoculars, pen and paper were used to make note of types of planes and estimates of speed, direction of travel, altitude, and identifying markings, which were entered in a log book.  A sign-in sheet logged the names and hours of the participants.

Clarkson Museum_20131104_03

Clarkson Museum_20131104_02

Clarkson Museum_20131104_04

Clarkson Museum_20131104_01

Clarkson Museum_20131104_05

One of the purposes of logging in the hours spent watching the sky was to amass enough volunteer hours to be awarded a cool blue and silver lapel pin – the winged GOC pin.  Lumir Prazak would turn in the names and hours of the observers.  Obviously this lapel pin was a desirable prize – many of the participants still have theirs.

GOC wings


As the Cold War wound on, offensive weapons and defensive systems were improved.  In the late 1950s the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar-based early warning system in Canada, became operational, and eventually the slow-flying bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The value of civilian airplane observers was diminished, and on January 31, 1959 the Ground Observer Corps Program was shut down.

In retrospect, it seems pretty unlikely that Russian bombers could have flown all the way to Nebraska without being detected somewhere in Canada or the Dakotas, but you never know, eh?   Let the record reflect that there was not a single bombing of the U.S. mainland during the existence of GOC.

Thanks to Dennis Houfek (who first told me about the GOC in Clarkson), Rich Neuhaus, Bernice Cada, Tony Dusatko, Ele Loseke, Edie Welch, Ron Vavrina, Edith Nepper, Arlys Wehrer, and Robert Prazak  for their memories of (and membership in) Clarkson’s Ground Observer Corps.

An excellent history of the U.S. GOC is provided by:  Clymer, K. 2013.  The Ground Observer Corps – Public Relations and the Cold War in the 1950s.  Journal of Cold War Studies. 15(1):34-52.

Ground Observer Corps, Hurray!

Protects our Nation every day.

Protects our flag, Red, White, and Blue,

They Protect everyone, even you.

Always on guard with Watchful eyes,

Never tiring they search the skies.

From now to eternity we shall be free,

America’s guarded by the G.O.C.


Posted in 1950s | 4 Comments

Answers and More Questions

You may recall that when I was delving into the history of the Clarkson Czech/Beseda Dancers, I was given a marvelous photo of the first Children’s Beseda Group, who made their appearance in 1964.  My question was “Who are these kids?”  Eldora Gentzler, Patti Polodna Berryhill, and Bob Stonacek (all of whom are in the picture) responded to the call with their excellent memories.


Top Row – Sandy Hockamier, Bobby Nebola, Jackie Toman, Scott Odvarka, Kathy Nykodym, Billy Novotny, Cindy Nelson, David Vavrina, Eldora Gentzler (Instructor)

Row 3 – Theresa Nosal, Keith Vrbicky, Kathy Bukacek, Johnny O’Neal, Debbie Belohrad, Kenny Podany, Christine Gentzler, Bobby Odvarka, Marj Stonacek (Assistant)

Row 2 — Sheila Toman, Patti Polodna, Danny Nosal, Mary Kay Tomka, Tony Pekny, Shelley Hockamier, Tommy Hamernik

Front Row — Patricia Gentzler, Joey Toman, Kathy O’Neal, Timmy Nosal, Nancy Toman, Bobby Stonacek, Cynthia Bukacek, Kenny Stonacek.  Not shown: Roger Haist

This week’s contest involves 3 more pictures that need identifying:

1965 Firemen

Question 1.  Name the men in the 1965 snapshot above.  As the sign suggests, I think these guys were volunteer firemen.

FRONT ROW: (L-R) 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Joe Svik 4.unidentified, 5. Curtis Koehn, 6. Dick Urbanek, 7. Pee Wee Wasko, 8. Spitz Belohrad, 9. Joe Toman.

SECOND ROW: 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Clarence Moore (partially hidden) , 4. Alden Manak, 5.Joe Sedlacek, 6. Marcel Brabec, 7. Jim Kratochvil, 8. Dick Moore, 9. Ed Svik.

STANDING: 1. unidentified, 2. unidentified, 3. Reuben Uecker, 4. unidentified.


Question 2.  What do the next two pictures have in common?  (And can anyone identify the two men in the second picture?)



Is the fellow on the right a young Slavy Vodehnal?

The first person to correctly answer this week’s quiz will win a Tupperware container filled with pancakes left over from Clarkson’s first Pancake Day in 1949!  The flapjacks were recently unearthed behind the Clarkson Museum (don’t worry, the Tupperware was properly “burped” and sealed).  Perhaps your prize will be delivered by the majorettes:  Inez Kudrna, Doris Cernin, and Doris Sousek

Inez Kudrna Doris Cernin Doris Sousek

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Autumn in The Land of Corn


When our ancestors arrived in eastern Nebraska, they were met with a trackless, seemingly endless expanse of tall grass prairie.  Mile after mile after mile of a landscape that looked something like this, broken only by an occasional tree along the banks of a stream.

As soon as they were able, the immigrant farmers plowed up that prairie, parceled it into neat one-mile square sections, and began to grow bountiful crops of cereal grains.


By the time I came on the scene, a mixture of field crops and livestock supported a lot of families around Clarkson, and by extension a lot of businesses in Clarkson.  To my Big City friends I would describe my parents’ farm like this:  Dad planted and harvested wheat, corn, oats, barley, alfalfa, sweet clover, sorghum and soybeans.  On the 11-acre home place, my parents raised beef cattle, milk cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks, and maintained a sizable fruit orchard and vegetable garden.  A typical family farm, I said.

By the mid-1980s, my description  brought grins from people who knew how agriculture had evolved.  The kind of farm I remembered now exists mainly in the storybooks. Many farmers around Clarkson have become specialists, planting hundreds of acres of nothing but corn or maintaining huge cattle feedlots.




Acre after acre of corn, and in October and November the harvest is full swing.  To say that the landscape is totally dominated by corn would be an exaggeration.  The monoculture is occasionally interrupted by bales of hay…


or cattle grazing in the fields (of corn stubble)…


But some things have not changed since the time of our immigrant ancestors.  You can still listen to the crisp, cold autumn winds moving through the cottonwood trees,


and over the pasture grasses,


The maples are still blindingly yellow on a bright sunny day,


the milkweed pods still split open to release their fluffy seeds,


the trees and fences cast long shadows,


and all around, things are being tucked away for the winter.


It’s a good time to be home.


Posted in The 21st Century | 4 Comments

Projít Brambory, Prosím

Or, as you Anglos say it,  pass the potatoes, please.

Potatoes 2

I was in one of the darker parts of The Vault this week, looking for a room in which to store this year’s potato harvest, when I came across this picture of my Dad and brothers sorting through potatoes at the entrance to the cellar.  It got me to thinking about what a big part of our diet on the farm was made up of potatoes.  It seems like we had boiled or fried potatoes for nearly every meal; only occasionally was the “starch” course of the 1950s Meat and Potatoes diet satisfied by noodles or rice.

This was entirely consistent with the Czech cuisine and traditions (and frugality).  Czech cookbooks feature all manner of recipes for potatoes – variations on the theme of boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato and dill soup, roast beef hash, potato dumplings (knedliky), and potato pancakes (bramboraks).  Czechs have figured out how to incorporate potatoes into most of their most popular dishes, except for kolaches.  Unless you substitute boiled potato water for milk in the kolache dough recipe…

The popularity of potatoes in the Czech diet is a bit surprising since they are a relatively new discovery.  The potato is a New World plant, believed to have arisen in the South American Andes and been eaten there for thousands of years.  But the potato was unknown in Europe until the Spanish rolled over the Inca Empire in Peru and brought the potato to Europe in about 1570. The spread of the spud was slow, but by the mid-18th century the governments of France and Germany encouraged planting potatoes in garden plots as a hedge against famine (the Czech word for potato, bramburk, means “Brandenburg/Prussian,” which tells you something about how this vegetable came to Bohemia). This strategy worked well and was quickly adopted – potatoes thrived in the cold, damp climates of Northern Europe when other crops failed.  Potatoes yielded 2 to 4 times more calories per acre than grain did, did not require a gristmill for grinding, and were cheaper and more nutritious than rye bread.  Potatoes became a dietary staple that provided food surpluses and supported population growth all over Europe in the 19th century.  The infamous potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1840s and led to over one million starvation-related deaths also killed the potatoes in continental Europe.  But the famine was more severe in Ireland because potatoes accounted for much more of the Irish diet; 32% of the arable land of Ireland was planted in potatoes, compared to about 10% in Prussia.



I don’t recall our potato crop ever failing because of disease, but we always had to contend with a serious pest, the Colorado potato beetle.  A voracious feeder, they could turn a vigorous, waist-high potato plant into a skeleton in a couple of days.  I suppose there were insecticide dusts available, DDT and a host of the other now-banned chemicals, but mostly we controlled these pests the old fashioned way – by picking them off, one by one, and dropping the larvae or adult beetles into a 1-gallon paint can with a couple of inches of kerosene at the bottom.  It worked.

seed potato

Pests and blight aside, the potato was an easy plant to grow.  Sometime in the early spring Dad would buy “seed” potatoes, or scavenge potatoes from last year’s crop that had started to grow “eyes.”  A good potato might have several eyes, so that it could be cut into 3-4 pieces.  Each piece was buried a few inches deep in the rich Nebraska soil, covered up, and over the course of summer would grow into a full-sized potato plant.  By September or October the tops of the potatoes would die back, which meant that the buried tubers were ready for harvest.  We’d dig them up with a three-tined potato fork, turning over the dirt to reveal (hopefully) two or three large spuds and a number of smaller ones.  It was always a great disappointment when one of the tines in the potato fork pierced the middle of a nice, picture-perfect baking potato.

The method I described works fine for the backyard garden, but planting and harvesting large numbers of potatoes called for mechanization.  Rusting in the shelter belt behind our house was a horse- or tractor-drawn potato planter that looked something like this:

Potato Planter 2Potato Planter

I never saw it in operation, but from its simple design I can guess how it worked.  The planter had a box on top to hold the seed potatoes. It had a small plow blade that opened up a furrow, and right behind the blade a cast iron tube allowed you to drop the seed potatoes into the furrow one by one as the implement slowly moved forward.  I’m not sure how the furrow got closed up again behind the planter; maybe there were some other blades that did that, or maybe that was the job of the farm wife walking behind with a hoe.  Perhaps the same plow was used at harvest time, or was another implement used to unearth the rows and rows of tubers?  A friend told me his parents had something called a lister for preparing the vegetable garden and harvesting spuds.  His family had the only one in the neighborhood so they were pretty popular at harvest time.  Some years they would coordinate a Saturday in late September or early October and go to 3 or 4 farms for the potato harvest, sort of a bee.   Spuds were most often dug up, gathered into 5-gallon buckets, sometimes sacked or just dumped onto a cart or shallow wagon and stored in an underground storm cellar.  All shared in the work and then a big neighborhood party would follow.

Potato sorters 9-64

The potatoes could stay in the ground for a time before harvest, but they needed to be harvested and put in the cellar before the ground froze for the winter.  Potato cellars (or caves, as some called them) were versatile structures.  They stored not only potatoes, but apples, cabbage, beer, milk and cream, canned fruits and vegetables, lard, crocks with meats preserved in lard – anything that needed to be kept cool in the days before refrigeration.  And they doubled as a storm cellar when tornados came through the neighborhood (remember the Wizard of Oz?).  Every one that I was ever in had the same design – basically a rectangular vault whose floor was about 15 feet underground, with an arched ceiling that created an above-ground mound.  A wooden door led down a flight of steps (often rickety, half-rotted wood steps) to the dirt floor of the cellar.  I assume that most cellars must have had an arched brick ceiling to support the weight of the soil above without collapsing.  Our cellar had a brick ceiling and dirt walls and floor; some of the nicer ones had brick walls as well.  And they all had a nice, diverse collection of spiders.

I suppose every farm had a potato/storm cellar, and they were common in Clarkson as well.  From my recollections of the 1950s and 1960s, I had guessed that 10% of the homes had a cellar in their backyards.  But others, with longer memories, estimate that 75% of the homes had caves in the first half of the 20th century.  That’s probably correct, because cellars were the only way to keep food cool before electricity.  When the town was electrified, and refrigerators and freezers became common, cellars fell into disuse and most were filled in.  By the beginning of the current century it was hard to find a potato cellar in Our Town.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s | 5 Comments

All Hail the Return of Nonat!

Friends, do you suffer from boils?  carbuncles?  furuncles?  ingrown toenails?  embedded shards of glass?  chapped lips?  Then I have good news for you!

A recent issue of our Colfax County Press contained a startling advertisement – the return, after 60 long years, of the once-popular Czech healing salve called Nonat.

How many of you remember this miracle potion?  It was comprised of those well known medicinal ingredients – camphor, zine sulfate, and pure gum turpentine.  The active ingredients were combined with wax into a hard stick (cylindrical, I think), wrapped in a paper tube, and packaged in a little rectangular cardboard box:


(I remember our box being a dark green color, but that may have been because it was so old and discolored.)  Nonat was manufactured between 1914 and the early 1950s, when the Czech grandmother who made it passed away.

I suspect that few farmers’ medicine cabinets were without it.  Nonat was a type of drawing salve – a drawing salve is an ointment that can be used to treat a variety of skin inflammations. The ointment “draws out” problems such as infections, ingrown toenails, wood splinters, glass shards, and insect poison.   Anyone who worked outside a lot was likely to experience any and all of these insults.

We used Nonat sparingly, mainly to remove deeply embedded splinters, ones that were resistant to Mom’s probing with a needle.  A wooden match would be struck, and the flame used to melt a bit of the hard, waxy ointment.  The molten wax was dripped on the site of the wound, and covered with a Band-Aid.  A day or two or three later, the skin around the area would soften, swell a bit, and the splinter (and any associated infection) would miraculously emerge.  The pungent smell of camphor and turpentine assured you that the healing process was in full gear!

In our house, the name of this miraculous salve was pronounced “NO-nahth” – as if it was a Czech word.  I always assumed that it was because many English words we spoke had a Czech spin to the pronunciation.  But it turns out that Nonat is a Czech word, after a fashion.  Quoting from the Nonat website ( http://www.nonatsalve.com ):

“Nonat has its beginning in what is now the Czech Republic.  The formula was brought to this county in 1899, by a lady who  obtained it from a Doctor over there. She settled in Ohio and then in California where it was last produced and marketed in the 1950’s.  It had a definite market amongst East Europeans. 

The name Nonat was an intriguing name as the lady was of Catholic faith, and had a devotion to St. Anthony and is a jumble of the word Anton.

Father Leiblinger fondly remembers watching his grandmother make the salve many times over the years. She had many distributors throughout the United States, especially among Czech settlements. Father believes that the last time the salve was actually made was in the early ‘50s, just before Rose Miller passed away.”

I always wondered what happened to the little, half-used stick of Nonat that my parents kept on the shelf, and have often looked for it in country stores over the years, to no avail. Now comes the announcement that a new, improved Nonat is available once again, by mail or wherever fine products are sold.  It is made into a softer composition (no more dripping hot wax onto an injury) and now includes antiseptic and antibacterial ingredients as well.

Nonat is dead.  Long live the new, improved Nonat!


Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 4 Comments

A Toast to the Workers!

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.  – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I hope all of you are blessed with good, honest work and will have a fun and relaxing weekend.  In commemoration of Labor Day, I offer a pictorial tribute to some of the workers who built Our Town.

Butchers (Bohumil Beran Meat Market) ….

Bohumil Beran - Beran Meat Market (Stop Inn Cafe)

Farmers (a Brabec clan)….

Brabecs July 1941 a

Power Plant Operators  (City Hall Boiler Room, 1918)….

City Hall Boiler Room 1918


Clarkson Mill 1898

Lumber Dealers  (Crowell Lumber and Grain, 1899)…

Crowell Lumber & Grain Co 1899

Bankers (Farmers State Bank)….

Farmers State Bank 1

Meat Packers (Ferenc Slaughterhouse)…

Ferenc Slaughter House

Implement Dealers….


Livery Stable Operators (Gus Koza Livery Barn)….


Carriage Makers (both horseless and otherwise)…


Auto Dealers and Stunt Drivers….

IMG_0014Fajman Motor Co., Clarkson, advertised that Pre-War Prices are Beaten! A new Overland New Series Touring Car was listed at $595. The Overland is of sterling dependability and is an exceptionally good investment.   Other prices include: Chassis, f.o.b. Toledo, $485. Touring, f.o.b. Toledo, $595. Roadster, f.o.b. Toledo $595, Coupe, f.o.b. Toledo, $850. Sedan, f.o.b. Toledo, $895. (Colfax County Press, September 21, 1921)


Newspaper publishers…



Hoteliers (The Noh Hotel)….






Truck Drivers  (John Sousek’s Transport)…

Sousek Trucking


Saloon Keepers…






Hardware Store Owners (J.R. Vitek Hardware Store)….

J R Vitek Hardware Store


Mailmen (John Roether, rural mail carrier)…

John P Roether 1909


Furniture Store Owners (Joseph V. Fajman Furniture Store)….

Joseph V Fajman Furniture Store


General Merchandisers (Julius Wacha General Merchandise)….

Julius Wacha General Merchandise Store



Moon's Ranch


Ditch Diggers (sewer system construction, 1927)…

Sewer System Construction 1927


Construction Workers (grain silo construction, 1919)…

Silo Construction 1919

God give me work, till my life shall end
And life, till my work is done.

- Winifred Holtby

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s | 10 Comments

Skeletons in the Shoe Store

Last week I posted a picture of a mysterious-looking wooden box and asked if anyone could guess its purpose and location.  It can now be revealed that the box is a…

Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope (ca. 1930-1955)



If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember that this was the “scientific” way to get a good fit on your new, stiff, leather shoes.  Nowadays, they are relegated to museums of medical curiosities.  What follows is a great description and pictures of this Infernal Machine, courtesy of Paul Frame of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/shoefittingfluor/shoe.htm)

Basic Description

The shoe fitting fluoroscope was a common fixture in shoe stores during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. A typical unit, like the Adrian machine shown here, consisted of a vertical wooden cabinet with an opening near the bottom into which the feet were placed. When you looked through one of the three viewing ports on the top of the cabinet (e.g., one for the child being fitted, one for the child’s parent, and the third for the shoe salesman or saleswoman), you would see a fluorescent image of the bones of the feet and the outline of the shoes.

According to Williams (1949), the machines generally employed a 50 kv x-ray tube operating at 3 to 8 milliamps. When you put your feet in a shoe fitting fluoroscope, you were effectively standing on top of the x-ray tube. The only “shielding” between your feet and the tube was a one mm thick aluminum filter. Some units allowed the operator to select one of three different intensities: the highest intensity for men, the middle one for women and the lowest for children.

shoeKIDS 001

Most units also had a push button timer that could be set to a desired exposure time, e.g., 5 to 45 seconds.  The most common setting was 20 seconds.


The Origin of the Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope

X-rays images of feet inside shoes and boots had been produced for a variety of reasons long before the invention of the shoe fitting fluoroscope.  Who actually invented the device is something of an open question  –   it is possible that it was invented independently by more than one individual.

There is a story to the effect that the first shoe-fitting fluoroscope was built in Milwaukee sometime around 1924 by Clarence Karrer who worked for his father, a dealer in surgical supplies and x-ray equipment. After selling several such units to shoe manufacturers and retailers, Karrer was asked by the Radiological Society of North America and some radiologists to stop because it “lowered the dignity of the profession of radiology.” Karrer complied, but another of his father’s employees quit the company and patented the device.  This “history” of the shoe fitting fluoroscope comes from a letter written by Peter Valaer in 1978. In the letter, Valaer recounts how he had a chance meeting with Karrer who told him the story.

There might be elements of truth here, but Valaer’s account is hard to reconcile with the information found in Baring the Sole: The Rise and Fall of the Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope  (Duffin and Hayter, 2000). The latter has to be considered the best historical account of the shoe fitting fluoroscope.


Although Duffin and Hayter are somewhat noncommittal, it is hard to read their article without concluding that Dr. Jacob Lowe, a Boston physician, has the strongest claim to the title, “inventor of the shoe-fitting fluoroscope.”  Lowe created his first fluoroscopic device for x-raying feet during World War I. By eliminating the need for his patients to remove their boots, the device sped up the processing of the large number of injured military personnel who were seeking his help. After the war he modified the device for shoe-fitting and showed it for the first time at a shoe retailer’s convention in Boston in 1920. Although he had applied for a patent in February, 1919, it wasn’t granted until January 1927.  Lowe assigned the patent to the Adrian Company of Milwaukee. The following is taken from an article on page 249 of the January 1, 1921 issue of the Boot and Shoe Recorder  (kindly provided by Michelle Cadoree Bradley):

“Foot-O-Scope to be at Milwaukee.  Will be part of Model Shoe Store Equipment. A New England device, the Foot-o-Scope, invented and perfected by J.J. Lowe of Boston, is to be part of the Model Shoe Store equipment at the Milwaukee convention of the N.S.R.A. This device, by means of its x-ray attachment, makes it possible to see the bones of the foot inside the shoe and shows clearly any deformation  or misplacement of the bony structure.”

At more or less the same time, a similar device known as the Pedoscope was invented in Great Britain. The patent for the Pedoscope (No. 248,085) was applied for in 1924 and granted in 1926. Nevertheless, in 1925 the Pedoscope Company claimed that their device had been “in continuous daily use throughout the British empire for five years.” (London Times, Dec. 31, 1925).


Contrast the preceding with the following quotes from Syl Adrian that appeared in the January 13, 1966 issue of the Fond du Lac (Wisconsin) Commonwealth Reporter:

“Mathew [Syl's brother] got the idea for the x-ray machine.” Adrian recalls. “His son had infantile paralysis, and he saw a need for fitting shoes by X-ray. We built them in Milwaukee. At that time I was working on automatic pianos and phonographs in Fond du Lac, and I’d also work on the X-ray machines in Milwaukee. We sold about one X-ray machine a month for about $850 to $950.”  Later Syl, now nearing 72, moved the X-ray machine plant to Fond du Lac with the idea of starting a company here. But he sold out his interests, getting $25,000 from the Weyenberg firm. This wasn’t pure profit however since investments in the patent had cost him close to $15,000. Mathew retained his interest in the machine.”

The X-ray Shoe Fitter Corporation of Milwaukee Wisconsin, which made the Adrian and Simplex lines, and the Pedoscope Company of St. Albans in the U.K, were the two largest manufacturers of shoe fitting fluoroscopes. In the early 1950’s, estimates placed the number of operating units in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada at 10,000, 3,000 and 1,000 respectively.

The earliest reference that I have found to the use of the shoe fitting fluoroscope outside of the United States is the following story from the Manitoba Free Press dated January 2, 1922:

“New X-Ray Device. Holiday shoppers in London now stop at Baber’s Ltd., a retail shoe store in Oxford street to see how his or her foot appears inside the shoe and if it is really a true-fitting shoe. This up-to-date shop has installed an X-ray apparatus by which shadow pictures of the foot are made upon plates and the customer has the satisfaction of seeing whether or not the shoe pinches the foot.”

I assume that “plates” refers to a fluorescent screen rather than a photographic plate. The next oldest reference I have found is an ad in the August 8, 1922 issue of the Appleton Post-Crescent that states that “One of the Famous Adrian X-Ray Shoe Fitters” will be in the Novelty Boot Shop during Convention Week.


Safety Concerns and the Legislative Response

In 1946, the American Standards Association established a “safe standard or tolerance dose,” that the feet receive no more than 2 Roentgens (R) per 5 second exposure. Children were not to receive more than 12 such exposures in a single year. The State of New York adopted similar requirements in 1948, and other states and major cities began to follow suit. As a result, the manufacturers of shoe fitting fluoroscopes became concerned that their products would have to meet a myriad of standards that varied from location to location, and they asked the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) to recommend a uniform set of standards. The ACGIH did so and issued their guidance in 1950, an event that allowed the manufacturers to advertise that they met the ACGIH standards.

By the early 1950s, a number of professional organizations had issued warnings about the continued use of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes, e.g., the ACGIH,  American College of Surgeons, New York Academy of Medicine and theA merican College of Radiology. At the same time, the District of Columbia issued regulations that shoe fitting fluoroscopes could only be operated by a licensed physiotherapist. A few years later, Massachusetts passed regulations requiring that the machines be operated by a licensed physician.  In 1957 the State of Pennsylvania became the first jurisdiction to ban the use of shoe fitting fluoroscopes. By 1960, these events, plus pressure from insurance companies, had led to the demise of the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, at least in the U.S. In the end, the shoe stores were probably just as glad to be rid of the things  – at least one survey had indicated that the machines were perceived by shoe salesmen a sales gimmick rather than a useful tool.

Attempts to impose regulatory restrictions on the use of shoe fitting fluoroscopes seem to have been limited to the United States.  Despite considerable effort, Jacalyn Duffin and Charles Hayter, authors of the aforementioned “Baring the Sole: The Rise and Fall of the Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope,” could not find any Canadian or British legislative action pertaining to these devices. In fact, Duffin and Hayter noted that these machines continued to be used in Canada and the UK , albeit to a limited extent, at least until 1970.

Radiation Exposures

While the exposure rates associated with these machines varied considerably, the measurements reported by various authors are reasonably consistent.

According to Moeller (1996), measurements performed during the late 1940s indicated that the doses to the feet ranged from 7 to 14 R for a 20 second exposure.  Doses to the pelvis ranged from 30 to 170 mrem. He also noted that surveys at the time indicated that more than 60 percent of inspected machines exceeded the American Standards Association recommendation of 2 R to the feet per five second exposure.

According to Duffin and Hayter (2000), a 1948 survey of x-ray machines in Detroit indicated that the exposure rates at the position of the feet ranged from 16 to 75 R/min.

Measurements performed by Williams (1949) ranged from 0.5 to 5.8 R/second to the feet. He also reported exposure rates that were above 100 mR/hr at a distance of ten feet from the front of the unit.

Bavley (1950) reported measurements of  1 to 175 mR/hr (60 mR/hr average) at a height of 18 inches above the floor and 9 inches away from the sides of the machine. The exposure rates 5 feet in front of the machine and 18 inches above the floor were as high as 65 to 160 mR/hr (average: 114 mR/hr)

Despite these relatively high exposures, there were no reported injuries to shoe store customers. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the operators of these machines. Many shoe salespersons put their hands into the x-ray beam to squeeze the shoe during the fitting. As a result, one saleswoman who had operated a shoe fitting fluoroscope 10 to 20 times each day over a ten year period developed dermatitis of the hands. One of the more serious injuries linked to the operation of these machines involved a shoe model who received such a serious radiation burn that her leg had to be amputated (Bavley 1950).

Fluor cartoon

Excerpts from Installation Directions:

“Before putting the tube in the X-ray Machine, place the machine in the most desirable location. . . . We would suggest that you center the machine in the store so that it will be equally accessible from any point. Of course, it should face the ladies’ and children’s departments by virtue of the heavier sales in these departments.”

“At some time or other a customer may request an examination of the foot without the shoe for diagnosing a bone condition. We suggest that you refer this work to the professional man, and advise your customer to have an X-ray laboratory or doctor whose office is equipped with X-ray, make this inspection.’

Text of Magazine/Newspaper advertisement (ca. late 1940s);

“They’ll Need Their Feet All Through Life.

Guard their foot health carefully through correctly fitted shoes. To help ensure better fit, leading shoe stores use the ADRIAN X-Ray Machine. Whether the shoe clerk is an “old timer” with 20 or more years of fitting experience or a “Saturday extra” who has been on the job only a few weeks, ADRIAN X-Ray Machines help him give your child the most accurate fitting possible.

The ADRIAN fluoroscopic x-ray picture illustrated above clearly shows correct or incorrect fit in an instant. Shoes that are too short or too long, too wide or too narrow, or even too pointed, are immediately indicated in an easily viewed instantaneous picture. You SEE your child’s foot IN THE SHOE.

The new Adrian “Special” shown here is the latest development in fluoroscopic X-Ray shoe fitting equipment. Built in full compliance with American Standards Association requirements as well as all other applicable government specifications, the new Adrian has met rigid requirements and has been awarded the Parent’s Magazine Seal of Commendation. The new ADRIAN can be found in better retail shoe and department stores everywhere. Ask for fitting by ADRIAN .  .  .  it will assure you of foot health and comfort.  And remember, SHOES THAT FIT WELL –  LAST LONGER!”

Text for Radio Commercial

Every parent will want to hear this important news!  Now, at last, you can be certain that your children’s foot health is not being jeopardized by improperly fitting shoes. STORE NAME is now featuring the new ADRIAN Special Fluoroscopic Shoe Fitting machine that gives you visual proof in a second that your children’s shoes fit. The ADRIAN Special Shoe Fitting machine has been awarded the famous PARENT’S MAGAZINE Seal of Commendation . . .a symbol of safety and quality to millions of parents all over America.  If your children need new shoes, don’t buy their shoes blindly.  Come in today, let us show you the new, scientific method of shoe fitting that careful parents prefer. STORE NAME invites all of you to visit us today for an interesting demonstration. We know that once you buy shoes that are scientifically fitted, you will shop at STORE NAME all of the time.


Bavley, H. Shoe-fitting with x-ray. National Safety News 62 (3):33, 107-111; 1950.

Directions for Installing and Operating the Adrian X-ray Shoe Fitter. No date.

Duffin, J.,  Hayter, C.R.R. Baring the Sole: The Rise and Fall of the Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope. Isis , 91 (2):260-282; 2000.

Fredrick, W.G., Smith, R.G. Fifty Years of Progress: 1940-1990 X-ray Shoe Fitting Machine: 1948. Am. Ind. Hyg. Quart. 9 (4): 89-93; 1948.

Hempelmann, L.H. Potential Dangers in the Uncontrolled Use of Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscopes. :335-336. New Eng. J. Med. Sept. 1, 1949.

Lowe, J.J.  Method and Means for Visually Determining the Fit of Footwear. U.S. Patent No. 1,614,988. 1927.

Moeller, D.W. A Historical Note – The Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope. HPS Newsletter. June 1996:6-8.

Valaer, P. Letter to Dr. Lemay. Dec. 28 1978.

Williams, C.R. Radiation Exposures from the Use of Shoe-fitting Fluoroscopes. New Eng. J. Med. Sept. 1, 1949:333-335.


Part 2 of the quiz was “How far did you have to travel to use one of these devices?”  I don’t suppose that Clarkson ever had one, but I have a  vague memory of seeing one in Schuyler in the early 1950s, in that shoe store that was located between the Dime Store and Bryan’s Drug Store.  Both Elaine Dvorak and I remember a fluoroscope in the Poll Parrot Shoe Store in Columbus, and Phyllis remembers seeing one at the Buster Brown store in Norfolk.

We had 3 winners this time!  Congratulations to Ele Loseke, Doris Prazak, and Rollie/Elaine Dvorak!  So glad that you survived the experience!  For your prize, you’ll each be entered in a drawing to receive a brand new Brannock Device – an equally old but much safer way to get a good fit on your shoes.

Unless someone hits you on the head with it.


Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s | 1 Comment