Tedium - The Barleycorn Measurement Scheme 👟

The history of the shoe-sizing Brannock Device.

Hunting for the end of the long tail • June 09, 2024

Today in Tedium: When a large retail outlet is in its final throes, it can be fascinating to walk around one, not necessarily because you want to buy anything, but because of the things the natural selection process of panic-shopping surfaces. (When something is 90 percent off, you have to really not want it to leave it sitting there.) So in the early days of 2009, when I learned my local Sears store was closing after more than 40 years in business, I made two stops: One, nine days before its closure; and two, on its final day. As you can imagine, the trip surfaced different sales items each time, even though it was the same massive store both times, but the different levels of decay put different levels of focus on what was there. And during the last time, I found myself utterly enthralled with a device I’ve seen a million times, as have most of you. Something about the removal of its full context, as well as the clear amount of use the product had received, made the device stand out that much more. I’m, of course (of course!) talking about the Brannock Device, a mainstay of shoe stores for decades. What’s your shoe size? Today’s Tedium talks about the simple device that could easily tell you. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The approximate length, in inches, of an obscure unit of measurement called a “barleycorn,” which is the general space between one shoe size and another. While the system differs based on the part of the world one is located and the gender of the shoe-wearer, the barleycorn is basic measure used for shoes, with size zero or 1 being used for the smallest size that’s considered practical. While the U.S. and British shoe measurement systems differ in a few ways (specifically, where the zero unit begins), their measurement iterations are roughly the same.

(Jessica Lucia/Flickr)

Why feet need a specific measurement tool like the Brannock Device

The human foot is one of the most complex parts of the body, a mass of tendon and bone that takes a lot of punishment on a daily basis. It has one of the most difficult jobs: It must keep you upright and mobile, hopefully without much in the way of pain. (The fewer blisters, the better, I say.)

That complexity makes feet difficult to measure from a practical standpoint. You can’t just use a ruler and measure their length; you miss details like the width of the foot and the length of the arch. Fail to measure all three, and you might find yourself all blistered up by a tight-fitting shoe—or worse, threatening a rolled ankle by wearing a pair that’s too loose.

For this reason, despite our feet (and the shoes that wrap around them) being privy to many of the same spatial dimensions as everything else, we’ve found ourselves with a specifically nuanced measurement strategy that only applies to feet, and nothing else. If we measured shoes only in inches, the fit would not be precise enough. (Insert astute point about the metric system here.) Hence why we measure stuff in the nonstandard “barleycorn” unit instead, though we never actually call it that.

Foot measurement was never an easy process to begin with. Attempts at formalizing foot size date as far back as the 17th century in Randal Holme’s Academie of Armorie. The 1941 U.S. Department of Agriculture publication Shoe Sizing and Fitting: An Analysis of Practices and Trends noted the sheer complexity of sizing feet before there were devices dedicated to the practice:

A review of the development of foot-measurement methods makes clearer their status today. According to [F.Y. Golding, author of a 19th-century technical manual on shoe manufacturing], the earliest reference to measuring feet is in Holme’s Academie of Armorie, published in 1688 “where a gauge or shoe measure was used to obtain the length of a foot.” The shoemaker used his hand to take girth measurements, and his apprentice had to carry home in his eye the girth of the master’s fingers. A strip of paper was used around 1840 to obtain the size of a foot, “bringing this measure from the lower part of the back of the heel around each side of the foot to the tip of the great toe.” Men in the shoe industry today remember having their feet measured in this way.

The tape measure and the size stick gradually came into use and they continue to be the staple tools for sizing and fitting lasts. The length of the foot and the width of certain points can be taken with the size stick, but two persons are likely to pull a tape measure with varying degrees of tension. Only when the same person does all the measuring can comparable results be obtained with this method. Moreover, the tape can record only circumferences, not shape.

To put it another way, it was an inconsistent, non-scientific process—and it likely led to a lot of ill-fitting shoes.

Perhaps Charles Brannock was destined to be the guy to make sense of all this. Born in Syracuse, New York, his father started for a company that sold shoes. Brannock had eyes on the shoe industry himself, and as a college student interested in engineering, he sought to come up with a device that made it easy to measure every key part of a foot, fairly easily—first using an erector set, and then something more formalized, as laid out in his patent for the device, granted in 1929.

Brannock’s concept of a measuring tool (which outlasted his father’s company, by the way) wasn’t first, of course; there was an existing device on the market that covered similar ground. The RITZ Stick, a device that more closely parallels a traditional ruler, allowed for the measurement of the length of a foot. Invented in Chicago just a few years before the Brannock Device, the object has a similarly colorful history, something highlighted by the Made in Chicago Museum.

A RITZ Stick. (Acor Orthopaedic, Inc.)

But the RITZ Stick, which seems to have gone out of production, had some key weaknesses that prevented the device from becoming more common. For one thing, it was more complicated to use, requiring a total of eight separate measurements to get the correct foot size, which basically requires a shoe salesman be involved in the measurement process.

Brannock’s tool, on the other hand, seen in shoe stores the world over, found success because it took what threatened to be a guessing game of a process and simplified it into something that could be relatively easy to understand. The steps are simpler, and while they still benefit from the use of a shoe salesperson, the results are easily readable by anyone with a foot who can follow instructions: Put your heel here; line up your foot with these mechanical levers, flip it over, repeat on the other foot.

When World War II came along, he did one better to streamline the process, according to the Columbia News Service: He created a variation of the device that could measure both feet at the same time, while fitting military regulations for soldiers. While it’s a complex-looking device from the outset due to its metal design and numerous lines, those lines make it fairly easy to deduce all the relevant details about your feet.

The move to specifically target military needs proved astute: already seeing success prior to the war, the move ensured that Brannock’s innovation would become the de facto standard for measuring feet in the U.S.—where it’s remained ever since, in retail outlets far and wide.

“It’s kind of interesting. Everybody knows what it is, but nobody knows what it is.”

— Tim Follet, the vice president of the Brannock Device Company, discussing how he stumbled into his role in a 1998 profile of the company. Follett—who was brought in after the company’s founder, Charles Brannock, died in 1993, remains a part of the firm today. In recent years, the Brannock Device has maintained its Syracuse, New York, factory presence, but has faced increasing pressure from shoe-measuring devices made in other parts of the world, particularly China. The quality focus that goes into the devices—made of metal with a high quality of machining, and produced completely by hand prior to Brannock’s death—means that they cost significantly more than their competition, whether the RITZ Stick or a cut-rate option made without the same level of care.

If you need a Brannock Device baseball uniform, the Syracuse Mets have you covered. (via the Minor League Baseball website)

How the Brannock Device became the star of the show during a minor league baseball game

It’s not often that the Brannock Device, with its spartan name and oddly specific use case, gets to spread its wings.

Usually, it’s simply splayed out next to the other basics of a traditional shoe section—such as a mirror and a footstool—with nary a thought given to its use outside of that context.

It’s an American-made item, sold by an American company, with the ensuing problems of American manufacturing that come with it—that is, aggressive competition from China. But it is that uniquely American nature that makes it a perfect subject for a purely American promotional opportunity: A Minor League Baseball theme night.

As recently retired sports uniform blogger Paul Lukas (a guy who, no shit, has a Brannock Device tattoo) reported back in 2018, the Syracuse Chiefs decided to host a Brannock Device theme night back in May, complete with jerseys that reflected the memorable markings of the shoe-measuring device. (Although not the name—the team wasn’t allowed, per Minor League Baseball rules, to rename themselves the Syracuse Brannock Devices, so they called themselves the Syracuse Devices instead. Nice ring.)

Paul Lukas, a former ESPN contributor, got a chance to visit the Brannock factory in 2018; here’s one of the clips he shot of the device’s production process.

Jason Smorol, the general manager of the team (now known as the Syracuse Mets), was initially going to do a smaller tribute to the device, but Lukas, a Brannock superfan if you could ever call a person one, was convinced to make it a broader promotion, complete with new jerseys and hats.

“If you’re just doing a salute to something, you can pretty much do it however you want,” Smorol told Lukas. “But if you’re going to change your name on the field, you have to go through all these approvals. First we had to talk to the team’s ownership group and make sure they were on board. Once they said yes, we had to talk to the Brannock Device Company and get them on board. And then we explained the whole thing to Minor League Baseball, and they also gave their approval.”

(via MiLB)

Of the many interesting details about the Brannock-themed baseball game, perhaps the most interesting is that the team actually went to the trouble of designing a mascot, a Goomba-like creature named Chuck that is essentially a Brannock device flipped on its side that happens to wear shoes. Danny Tripodi, the team’s social media manager and designer, told Lukas that, beyond Super Mario Bros., he took inspiration from Mr. Potato Head and the fact that the giant black bar in the middle of the Brannock Device looks kinda like a mustache when flipped.

“The Brannock Device is such an old product, so I wanted him to be like an old man who’s got this big mustache and maybe he’s a little grumpy,”

Per Minor League Baseball, the team has the name and logo trademarked in case they want to pull the stunt again, which I hope they do, because—let’s face it—the Brannock Device deserves the occasional promotion.

The thing about foot measurement is that it’s a medium for which technological innovation seems impractical, in part because there’s only so much benefit that can currently be received by improved technology.

You may be familiar with the tooth-alignment technology Invisalign, for example, which starts with an exact mold of your teeth and improves upon it over time, with the goal of gradually straightening your teeth. The human feet allow for opportunities similar, if not exactly the same, to this, because of the fact that many people don’t have feet that are exactly the same size on both sides, and therefore are stuck wearing shoes that don’t exactly fit on one side or the other.

If shoe-fitting technology allowed for a better-fitting footwear, for example, that would be a powerful argument in favor of something more nuanced. But unlike a pair of Invisalign molds, our technology hasn’t improved to the point where you can get a shoe perfectly molded to fit your feet, specifically, and nobody else’s. (This might not be a good thing, anyway, if you plan to resell the shoe someday.)

This hasn’t stopped some from trying—the athletic shoe retailer Fleet Feet, for example, launched a proprietary foot-sizing tool called Fit ID, which allows it to 3D scan a customer’s foot directly in the store. It’s sort of like they took a motion capture device and applied it to the work traditionally associated with a Brannock Device for some reason. It’s like they applied the technology behind the visual effects in the last Avengers movie to the most mundane thing humanly possible.

The way we sell shoes is imperfect and doesn’t make room for edge cases. As an example, I’m friends with a motivational speaker, best-selling author, YouTube personality, and Halloween enthusiast named Josh Sundquist, who lost his left leg to cancer at a young age—and has had a completely practical problem arise from this situation, where he only needs one shoe, but he’s forced to buy two. Eventually, he found his “solemate,” a person named Stephen who lost his right leg. Now, they exchange unused shoes.

While not a perfect device—we’ve just spent the last 2,500 words or so talking about a specialized ruler, effectively, and one that receives its share of criticisms—the Brannock Device is an important one because it arms the consumer with knowledge. Part of the reason why people don’t know what it’s called is because we use it relatively infrequently, especially after we enter adulthood. It’s so good at its job that we only have to use it a handful of times to maximize its value—and it does all of that without requiring an unnecessary 3D scan of your feet.

To put it another way, the Brannock Device allows consumers to put their best foot forward. That’s why it matters.

--

Find this one a fascinating read? Share it with a pal! (Next time you’re in a shoe store, think about the Brannock device. Trust me on this one.)

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