Michael Bierut | Essays


The Brannock Foot-Measuring Device, designed by Charles F. Brannock, 1925

A few weeks ago, I wanted to replace my old New Balance 992s, so I ordered a new pair on the Internet. But as I was clicking the final "Confirm Sale" button, I had that feeling you get the moment before you hit your thumb with a hammer. I turns out I bought the right shoes but in the wrong width: I accidentally ordered them in 11E instead of 11D. Undoing the order was complicated to the point of impossible, and returning the package for a refund seemed even more so. I decided instead to send out an email to see if any of my friends could use a pair of 11Es.

What I got back surprised me. "What's all this D and E business?" "Wait, shoes have a width?" "How do you know your foot width anyway?" and even "Does this have something to do with cup size?"

It turns out that no one seems to know their precise foot measurement any more. So I've got a question. Haven't any of you people ever used a Brannock Device?

My first real job after high school was as a salesperson for Noble Family Shoe Store at Pleasant Valley Shopping Center in Parma, Ohio, in the summer of 1975. This was not a fancy boutique. Most of the shoes cost less than $10. I think the most expensive pair was $18.99. That whole summer, no one even tried on the $18.99 shoes.

I loved that job. I loved the rows of shoe boxes back in the stockroom. As in most such places, they were organized so that if a shoe wasn't available in the size the customer wanted, you could emerge with the boxes immediately to the left and right, with instructions to describe them as "something you might like even more." I loved saying things like "espadrilles" and "partial leather uppers." I loved pushing the high-margin extras at the cash register like polish and laces. (My girlfriend Dorothy had the same talent for selling add-ons in her job at Ponderosa Steak House down Broadview Road, where they gave the meat away for free but made millions on the sour cream for the baked potatoes.) But most of all, I loved handling the Brannock Device.

Charles F. Brannock only invented one thing in his life, and this was it. The son of a Syracuse, New York, shoe magnate, Brannock became interested in improving the primitive wooden measuring sticks that he saw around his father's store. He patented his first prototype in 1926, based on models he had made from Erector Set parts. As the Park-Brannock Shoe Store became legendary for fitting feet with absolute accuracy, the demand for the device grew, and in 1927 Brannock opened a factory to mass produce it. The Brannock Device Co., Inc., is still in business today. Refreshingly, it still only makes this one thing. They have sold over a million, a remarkable number when one considers that each of them lasts up to 15 years, when the numbers wear off.

I find Charles Brannock's singlemindedness about his namesake both touching and slightly frightening. He once wrote of a visit to a shoe salon in Chicago in 1959. “As I entered the store there was a salesman, evidently the one who was 'up' and greeted me, so I stopped, removed my hat and said, ‘I will introduce myself, if I may,’ and gave him my name, extended my hand and remarked that I was the inventor and manufacturer of the Brannock Foot-Measuring-Device. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet me.” One imagines him criss-crossing the country, lurking in shoe stores, waiting for the right moment to reveal his identity to his legions of delighted acolytes.

I would have been among that genuinely-pleased legion. I am clumsy, incapable of operating even simple tools, unable to perform rudimentary household repairs. The Brannock Device manages at once to look incredibly complicated while being totally simple to use: despite its seemingly-daunting instructions, I mastered it in about a minute on my first day. Having such an exotic bit of machinery at my disposal took a job that's actually sort of demeaning — after all, I literally had to kneel in front of each of my customers — and transformed it into something akin to brain surgery. What people today feel about their iPhones, I felt about my Brannock Device.

I am not alone, of course. 20 or so years ago, I was visiting Tibor Kalman at M&Co., and there it was on his desk: his very own Brannock Device. It was exactly the sort of thing he loved, and if you require proof, his testimony is available to this day on the Brannock website: "It showed incredible ingenuity and no one has ever been able to beat it. I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we ever get to the stars, or find out everything there is to find out about black holes."

It's hard to tell now whether this hyperbole was intended ironically, but I don't think so. Some things just work perfectly. I wish more things did.

Posted in: History, Product Design

Comments [27]

I enjoyed reading this, Michael. There are so many underappreciated things we use everyday that seemingly go unnoticed.

The Brannock Foot-Measuring Device is a great invention, however it has proven to be of little use (at least to me) recently as every pair of shoes from different manufacturers seem to fit differently. For example: size 11 from one manufacturer may fit the same as size 9 1/2 from another.
Joey Pfeifer

I can definitely see the appeal: it’s a big, giant decoder ring; a Rosetta Stone for footwear.

It reminds me of when graphic designers got to fidget with their proportion wheel. A little turn here, a little adjustment there, and voilà -- a professional, proprietary calculation, achieved with minor physical dexterity, and even less mental.

I don’t think I could have worked very long with one, though. One look at those “Right Heel” and “Left Heel” labels, and I would have had the “Hokey-Pokey” running through my head all day.
Daniel Green

I'm much more satisfied finding a shoe and a size that fits. For example size 9.5 van slip ons or size 10.5 Adidas Adistars. I know those shoes fit me well and comfortably.

This reason (along with their appearance) has made me a committed costumer. The next shoes I buy will probably be vans as I just got new Adidas.

I've even worked on small online promotions for Puma and despite a significant discount I was not swayed to break my loyalty. Perhaps this is why shoe companies have redefined their concept of "fitting".

As good an invention as The Brannock Foot-Measuring Device is, I have not used one since I wrapped up puberty.

Well, people can talk of standards and shoe companies all they want, but I still think this is a pretty amazing device. It looks great, it feels great (in an odd kinda way), and as a kid I remember marvelling at the intricate simplicity (simple intricacy?) of the lines, numbers and sliders. It's a streamline-era survivor, I'm going to buy one just to hang on my wall.

I too enjoyed reading this piece. I can remember as a kid looking at the Brannock Device in the shoe store.

Paul Lukas' little magazine Beer Frame ("The Journal of
Inconspicuous Consumption") paid tribute to this object (in the 1990s, I'd guess). Lukas wanted his own Device, which (if I remember correctly) was then sold only to the shoe trade. I can't remember if he was able to snag one.
Michael Leddy

I bow to Paul Lukas, who not only is a passionate and articulate admirer of the Brannock Device, but actually has one tattooed on his right arm.
Michael Bierut

I always felt violated when the strange salesman at the strip mall Foot Locker put me in one of these devices. Thank God for Birkenstocks.

The product itself is brilliant. It's like the Vignelli Subway map for feet.
Bronson Stamp

What I remember about the device was the secrecy and the air of pretentiousness the store clerks held around it. As if they were the gatekeepers to this magical instrument of measurement.

There was one instance when I picked it up to study all those lines a bit more closely and got scolded from an employee. I guess a surgeon wouldn't want anyone playing with their scalpel. And come to think of it, I'm always afraid that someone is going to drop my iPhone.
Jon Dascola

These things really are marvelous little machines. But they nicely demonstrate that at some point, technology falters, and expert judgement takes over.

I was buying new running shoes from a specialty store, and I noticed the the saleswoman ignored the Brannock Device beside her. She just started bringing out shoes. Why?

"The machine's a good start," she said. "But now I can judge someone's shoe size just by looking at their feet."

But she had another reason: there's far more to shoe fitting than size. The saleswoman watched her customers run in their shoes, because she knew that shoes affect a person's gait. Two shoes might both fit - but one might worsen an injury, while the other might help prevent harm.

It turns out that a good runner-saleswoman relationship is rather like that between designer and client!
David Ramos

The whole premise for this article is hilarious.

I enjoyed it much. Thank you.

Little-known fact from the Brannock website:

"The Brannock device comes in green, purple, red or black."

Ben Kessler

Boring. I want the fluoroscope to make a comeback.
(Okay, fine, I was also weirdly fascinated by these things. But still: X-rays!)

How about the next article on the paper clip?

pat Taylor

Terrific essay. I always loved those devices--their heft/weight in particular. And I love still the 'science' they seem to bestow, helping assure shoppers with indecisive tendencies what is their true 'size' rather than their wishes about foot size.

I wonder if in kids' shoe stores this device still reigns supreme. Thanks again for this piece.
Sara Ivry

for more on paul lukas' book, a collection from past issues of Beer Frame, please see --


for a review of said book, which i wrote in 1997 for Design Issues, please see --

Paul Nini

As an intern at the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian, my friend Amy Watia and I diligently archived and cataloged the personal collections of not-so-famous inventors. Mine was Marvin E. Mundel, inventor of many time and motion study standards. Hers...the collection of Charles Brannock!
Tina Glengary

Great story Michael. A high school classmate worked in the local family owned shoe store. He was good. The Brannock Device was an indispensable part of his success. So far, only Su mentions the fluoroscope, the one serious challenge to the Brannock. Imagine, a little x-ray machine the local kids could dance in and out of, repeatedly, every day for weeks because it was just cool to stop in and "check my shoe size."
Matt Doherty

I concur with those who wrote about manufacturers not conforming to the (de facto) "standards" set by the Brannock Device, but it seems to me there's a market for an Inverse Brannock Device the fits inside a shoe and measures its size.

I'm sure it has already been invented, but if I do a search for one, I'll kill the next hour just surfing interesting stuff.

But as David Ramos points out, that's still just a start. At some point human judgement has to take over.

Second point: the Brannock Device pictured shows just American shoe sizing. What does the rest of the world use? No, not sizing standard but measuring device? Does the rest of the world use a measuring device or is that just a weird American (cultural?) oddity?

Third point: again I can research it and kill half my day, but which came first the sizing or the Brannock Device?
Mark H

@Mark H
As a kid growing up in the UK the local branch of Clarkes shoe shop had a foot measuring device which was like a weighing scales with two slots to put your feet into, the salesperson would then press a button and the machine would clamp around your foot quite tightly and then give a foot size and width reading.

I also remember other shoe shops having simple plastic or wooden rulers in a cross form but nothing as cool as Clarkes.

Brannock devices are fantastic. I, along with my seven employees use them every day to successfully fit high risk diabetic feet with orthopedic shoes. This is a population that experiences more than 80,000 amputations annually. Poorly fitted shoes often contribute to those numbers.

The key to success is to calibrate the Brannock to the manufacturer's sizes. We limit our shoes to only two manufacteres to make the process easier. Apis footwear produce women shoes in eight widths and men shoes in seven widths. Proper sizing is essential to keeping at risk feet safe.
Paul M

I remember those very clearly from being a kid. The anticipation as I waited to see how big my feel were now, and the validation it would give that I was growing up to be an adult.

These big old clunky things have such a nostalgic air to them: a sort of righteous self-importance. The indulgent curvilinear forms, the metallic overkill construction, and those fonts!

It kind of reminds me of the dashboards of a former obsession of mine, which has now been banned by my wife.
Steven S

For shoe biz inside yap, you can't beat Shoe Dog by George Pelecanos.

What a fantastic invention this device is.

I remember this from when I was a kid. Don't see them around too much today. Wish every place that sold shoes had them.


In all honesty, I haven't seen these in years! I was told by an individual I know who works in retail that their shoe section doesn't have a single measuring device.

On the note of sizing inconsistency, the same thing occurs in clothing. I almost wish there were enforced design standards - the FDA for apparel, with occasional check-ups on products.

Out of curiosity, I am wondering if a Brannock Device works adequately for high-heeled shoes, or shoes with any sort of elevation.
Kristy Headley

The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body.

Brannock's device would have worked if we all had Pinocchio feet, but unfortunately there can never be a sizing standard for something so organic and complicated.
Onur Orhon

when i was 3, i fell from one of those benches for trying on shoes, directly onto a Brannock device (always called a "shoesizer in my family, until now) and cut my face open from the bridge of my nose through half of my eyebrow. i have a terrific scar that i'm quite fond of, and have a B device (given to me as a birthday present one year) hanging on my bedroom wall.

I own and operate a family shoe store in Virginia, where we use the Brannock device daily. It is the tool of my trade, and if the salesperson knows the footwear they sell, the Brannock device is the most useful tool for measuring the feet. Our staff knows how each sku number fits for each 50 + brands that we represent, through training and fitting. Therefore, without the Brannock device, we would have to try on and try on and try on all kinds of sizes before reaching the perfect fit for each foot. Without the Brannock device in my line of work, I would be waste more time trying on shoes on our customers than actually fitting shoes. My suggestion to all you readers is to go to a store where the sales people are trained, not only in using the Brannock device, but trained in the brands they represent and know what each shoe has to offer.
Sandy Myers

Jobs | July 18