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.