If you’ve ever been fitted for a pair of shoes, you’ve been in close contact with a Brannock Device, though you may not recognize it by its name. Charles F. Brannock’s 1925 invention, which measured overall length, width, and heel-to-ball length of the foot all at one time, was a great improvement over previous measuring implements. By making possible more accurate fitting of shoes, the instrument helped many people alleviate or avoid foot problems, and its impact on the health and comfort of men and women serving in World War II was particularly notable. The Brannock Device quickly became the industry standard and is still used in shoe stores all over the world.
The Brannock Device Company Records were collected by the Museum’s Archives Center, under the auspices of the Lemelson Center’s Modern Inventors Documentation Program. The papers, which tell the story of an American inventor and entrepreneur’s long and successful career, exemplify the patent and trademark process in the United States, Great Britain, and other countries in the early 20th century. The documents also describe processes of manufacturing and marketing in the shoe industry and shed light on the production of military supplies during World War II. The collection was a gift to the Archives Center in 1998 from Salvatore Leonardi, who purchased the company from the Brannock estate in 1993 and continues to develop and manufacture the device.
Leonardi, aware of the historical value of the materials, contacted Lemelson Center director Art Molella to see if the Smithsonian would have an interest in the papers. “He alerted me to this unique collection he came across as he was moving into his new business,” Molella explains. Molella was immediately intrigued. “It’s rare to run into such a complete set of business records, beginning with a company’s inception,” he says. “And it was nice to find something sort of mundane that speaks to lots of everyday life issues.”
“It’s really two stories in one collection,” says Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center archivist. “The device, how it was invented, manufactured, and disseminated; and then the Park-Brannock shoe store, which Charles Brannock inherited from his father.”
The shoe store was founded in Syracuse in 1906 by Otis Brannock and Ernest N. Park. Innovative in their approach to marketing, they expanded the store’s product lines to include hats, handbags, and other accessories in addition to a vast selection of shoes for men, women, and children. The business was remarkably successful. In the following decades, the founders moved it into successively larger quarters, eventually occupying a six-story building. The interiors and window displays were always stylishly designed, and Park-Brannock became known as one of the largest and finest shoe stores in the eastern United States.
The inventor Charles Brannock (1903-1992) never married and never left Syracuse. He grew up in the shoe business and as a young man spent weekends and summers working in his father’s store. His main interest was the technical side of the business, and while a student at Syracuse University he focused on the problem of foot measurement. He was determined to design an instrument that could measure feet more accurately and efficiently than the tools then in use. He would often wake up in the middle of the night to jot down notes or make sketches as his concept took shape.
Brannock knew that the device would have to be both simple to operate and highly accurate. It would have to take three essential measurements: foot length, foot width, and the length from the heel to the ball of the foot, which indicates the location of the arch. The measurements would have to be made separately, to allow for the variation of human feet, but the instrument should yield the results simultaneously.
“Those were the problems that faced me,” Brannock later recalled. “The shoe salesman, like a doctor, has a distinct responsibility to his customers. A mistake in the fitting of a shoe, particularly a child’s, can easily endanger a person’s health. The crippled feet of today are the misfitted feet of yesterday.”
Over a two-year period, Brannock experimented and refined his invention, building his first working model from his childhood Erector set. Next, after a careful study of shoe and foot sizes, he fashioned a cardboard model that included calibrations and later made a wooden pattern. The final production device was cast in aluminum and assembled by hand. Brannock began manufacturing it in 1925; his patent for the device was issued in 1928.
Initially, the Brannock Device was used solely by salesmen at the Park-Brannock store. But when representatives of national shoe manufacturers saw its advantages, Brannock began getting orders from footwear companies. By 1939, it was reported that more than 33,000 of the devices were in use around the world--in Canada, South America, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, South Africa, Palestine, Australia, New Zealand, and the Malay States.
Brannock continued to refine and modify his invention. He developed a women’s model, a junior model for children, and other special variations for particular clients. One of his most important innovations was for the armed services in World War II.
As the United States was gearing up for the war, Brannock heard from the U.S. Army. “In May 1941 . . . I received a phone call from Washington requesting my assistance in connection with Army shoe fitting problems,” he wrote in a letter of 1943. “I worked closely with the Office of the Quartermaster General, and spent many weeks at Army Camps studying the shoe fitting problems and experimenting with and testing various models I had developed especially for the purpose of fitting the regulation Army shoe.” The outcome was a new double unit that could measure both feet at once and was calibrated for standard army shoe sizes.
When his father and Ernest Park both died in 1962, Charles Brannock became head of the Park-Brannock Shoe Store, with which he had always been closely connected. He ran it until it closed in 1981 during a period of urban change in Syracuse. He remained actively engaged in the operations of the Brannock Shoe Device Company, visiting the factory daily until six months before his death in 1992. At his death, he still held the patent for his foot-measuring instrument.
The Brannock Device Company Records now occupy about 12 cubic feet of space in the Archives Center. The materials include early sketches and notes, patents and trademarks, operational and manufacturing records, correspondence, customer comments, advertising, and photographs, as well as files on competitors’ products and a special fitting stool that Brannock designed to accommodate his measuring device.
Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center archivist, considers this collection to be among the most complete known records of an invention. “That’s what makes it so unusual,” she says. “The vast majority of invention collections are very fragmented and the inventing records are dispersed.” In contrast, the Brannock Device Company Records are comprehensive, including every phase of the device’s history from initial drawings through manufacturing, advertising, and sales. Along with the papers, the Museum acquired a number of actual Brannock Devices for its collections. The records and artifacts, now carefully preserved and accessible, offer much potential for further studies of 20th-century invention, innovation, manufacturing, and marketing.