Charles Brannock (1903-1992) was born into the shoe business—his father Otis Brannock and Ernest Park had founded the Park-Brannock Shoe Store in Syracuse, New York, in 1906. 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.
As a young man, Charles Brannock 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, and 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 after a trial run in his father's store. In 1926 he offered the device to shoe retailers, first on a rental basis and then for sale. His patent for "a foot measuring instrument" (US Patent 1,682,366) 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.
In 1933 a United States Navy captain asked a shoe salesman to find the source of many sailors' foot problems. After measuring sailors' feet with the Brannock device, the salesman declared that the navy shoe was not the cause of the problem; the sailors were simply wearing the wrong size shoes. The captain was so happy that he would not have to order special shoes for his men that he wrote an article in the July 1933 issue of United States Naval Institute Proceedings which described how the Brannock Device had eliminated foot troubles aboard the ship.
By 1939, it was reported that more than 33,000 of the devices were in use around the world. Increased demand during the 1940s allowed Brannock to move his workshop and manufacturing operation into a small factory with a machine shop. Brannock continued to refine and modify his invention. 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 US 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. The Brannock Device was used by most of the armed forces, including the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC).
Through the years Charles Brannock developed many different models of his device, including the women's, men's, junior, growing girls, athletic, and ski-boot, but he never strayed far from the original design. Today, the all-metal, practically unbreakable Brannock Device is still in production.
Brannock’s small but sturdy invention revolutionized the retail shoe business and created an international standard for shoe fitting. This story is captured in the comprehensive Brannock Device Company Records, 1925-1998, which include every phase of the device’s history, from initial drawings through manufacturing, advertising, and sales.
This nearly complete record of invention consists of early sketches and notes, patents and trademarks, operational and manufacturing records, correspondence, customer comments, advertising, photographs, files on competitors’ products, designs for a special fitting stool to accommodate the measuring device, product information, sales records, and a film strip documenting the invention, promotion, and sale of the Brannock Device as well as the concurrent development of Park-Brannock as a leading shoe store in Syracuse, New York. Along with the papers, the Museum acquired a number of actual Brannock Devices for its collections.
The collection offers researchers stories of invention and entrepreneurship, details of manufacturing processes and marketing in the shoe industry, and insight into the patent and trademark process in the United States and internationally in the early 20th century.