Brannock and Barlycorns

By The Metric Maven

In 2010, what is thought to be the oldest known shoe was uncovered in Armenia. It is estimated to be 6,000 years old.  The shoe was immediately identified as a right footed shoe which had been designed one thousand years before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The shoe’s length is 245 mm and its width is approximately 76-100 mm, with straw inside. The “modern” size of this shoe is  U.S. size 7 women, according to a Discovery News report. The shoe was constructed from a single piece of cowhide laced with a leather cord. The next oldest known shoe is that of Ötzi The Ice Man. His shoe was more sophisticated than the Armenian find. Ötsi’s shoes had bearskin bottoms, with deerskin sides and a bark-string net which form-fit around the foot. The shoes were stuffed with grass.

Of interest to me, was the claim, that the oldest shoe is known to be from a right foot. This is because one of the great modern shoe innovations was the development of right and left shoes. Although this development occurred in the mid 1800s, the majority of shoes worn by soldiers in the US Civil War were identical, without left and right.

Was the first known shoe designed to be a right shoe, or was it “broken in” and only later became identifiable as a right footed shoe? I suspect it is the latter. This implies it took over 6000 years for humans to realize the utility of creating right and left shoes. This innovation was accomplished by using foot models for right and left shoes of a given size. These foot models are known as lasts. When viewed through modern eyes, the lack of a right and left shoe seems unimaginable.

Brannock Measuring Devices

Uncomfortable shoes cannot be tolerated for long. Because of this, one would suspect the science of foot measurement and shoe sizing would be mature. The most ubiquitous method of foot measurement for shoes is the Brannock measuring device. It was created by Charles Brannock in 1927. Currently this device continues to be the dominant method for foot measurement in the service of shoe sizing in the US.

Perhaps the most famous shoes in US popular culture are the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. A number of ruby slippers were made for the movie with sizes from 5 to 6 with widths of B to D. Most people in the US will quote their shoe size without a second thought. But what are the measurement units?  I suspect almost no one knows. If a person were asked to guess what imperial measurement unit the US shoe size value is based, they would probably not guess the barleycorn. The original Anglo-Saxon
measurement unit was the barleycorn. It was decided after 1066 AD, that three barleycorns equal one inch. Yes, the difference between one shoe size and the next whole size is one barley corn, or 1/3 of an inch. A half shoe size is 1/6 of an inch.

So what is the length of Judy Garland’s slippers? Shoe size doesn’t immediately tell us how many millimeters long her shoes were. Women’s shoes have two different size definitions, Common and Foot Industries of America (FIA). The common size is based on “last length” which is the length of the inside of the shoe. This measurement is known to only produce a very crude estimation of shoe size.

The mathematical formula is: Female Shoe Size = 3 x Last Length (in inches) – 22.5. I hope I have not lost you at this point. I only brought this up to explain why the current method of determining shoe size is out of date, non-intuitive, and desperately needs reform. It also needs to be changed so I can spend less time in shoe stores. What is the approximate length of Judy Garland’s foot?—it is approximately 237 mm according to the common formula.

The alphabetical shoe width designations in the US are ad hoc and have no accepted standard. Our current shoe sizing does not incorporate width in proportion to any measurement. One can only wonder why a salesman would ever bother to measure foot width with a Brannock Device—perhaps they don’t.

I’ve had the experience of trying on numerous shoes, and sometimes never finding a comfortable pair. It’s explained to me without embarrassment that “the same shoe
size from different manufactures, are not the same.” A small forest of rejected shoe boxes generally begin to surround me, producing claustrophobia, which compounds my shoe purchasing aversion. I never want to reach the point where the salesman has only The Cruel Shoes left to offer. There must be a better way.

Clearly the need for reform in the US shoe industry is long, long overdue. The introduction of the metric system into the US would provide the perfect opportunity to implement much needed reforms. In this case the leading candidate for shoe size reform is known as Mondopoint  (ISO 9407:1991) which is an International Standard for shoe sizes. Mondopoint is based on the mean foot length and width for which the shoe is suitable. It is measured in millimeters. A shoe size of 280/110 indicates a mean foot length of 280 millimeters and width of 110 millimeters. Because Mondopoint also takes the foot width into account, it allows for better fitting than most other systems. It is, therefore, used by NATO and other military services. Mondopoint is also used for ski boots. The introduction of Mondopoint in the US during a metric switchover would allow for more exact shoe manufacture and provide consumers with a better shoe shopping experience at a lower cost.

Don’t put a shoe on the wrong foot, demand Modopoint.

Related Essay:

For Shoes, It’s The Metric 1960s

5 thoughts on “Brannock and Barlycorns

  1. If you look further is is more confusing as there is a completly separate set of rules for
    men’s , women’s and children’s size. None of them have a relation to the other that I can see.

  2. How are the height of the high heels measured? …Mr Metric Maven

  3. “men’s , women’s and children’s size. None of them have a relation to the other that I can see.”

    Also there are more than a couple of systems in other countries – and size also varies by manufacturer.

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