Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The X-Ray Machines of Old St. John's

If you talk to enough people about the way St. John’s used to be, a few reoccurring stories begin to emerge. Some of these stories describe the advent of new machinery in the downtown. For instance, the allure of the first escalator in St. John’s, at Woolworth’s department store, is an oft-cited memory. As the story goes, crowds of people showed up in the store for the sole purpose of riding the escalator. Lynn Anne Hollett also recalled the stir caused by an early TV set, which could be gazed at through the window of Great Eastern Oil on Water Street. Though no sound could be heard through the glass, there were usually "about four deep there of people watching that black and white TV." However, while escalators and TVs are all around us these days, other contraptions of downtown St. John’s have (perhaps wisely) fallen out of favour. One of these contraptions is the shoe store x-ray machine, otherwise known as a “fluoroscope”:

Wayne Guzzwell, who went on to become a CBC producer, and who later oversaw the Cabot 500 celebrations in 1997, the 50th Anniversary of Confederation Gala, and the Vikings 1000 Islendingur arrival ceremony, shared his memories of the gadget during our interview: 

Wayne: I wanted to go to the Royal Stores because the Royal Stores had this neat machine that—you put your new shoes on, you’d stand up to the machine, and you put your feet in the machine, and then there was a scope, and you’d look down, and it was an x-ray machine. And you could see your toes inside the shoe. So you could see if there was enough room for your feet. So, you know, our feet were probably massively radiated by the x-rays, but I thought I was Superman at the time, because I could see my feet through the shoes. And that was a really neat aspect of the Royal Stores, that x-ray machine. And that’s the only thing I would buy at the Royal Stores, or my family would buy, was shoes, and it was because of the x-ray machine.

Lynn Anne Hollett also brought up the x-ray machine during our interview, saying that "at least once a week you'd get away with it":

Lynn Anne: It was a big thing. Can you imagine what we were exposed to at that particular time? I mean, it was just like if you go over there now and put your foot into a sizer and say, “Okay, we’re going to do an x-ray right here, right now.” And I mean, you’d go down there for play. I mean, at least once a week you’d get away with it, to get down there and have an x-ray done of your foot. [laughs] Those poor salesmen. I don’t know how they fared, or how long they lived after that particular thing.
Andrea: So the salesmen would have to administer the x-ray?
Lynn Anne: Yeah! Yeah, right? No lead aprons or anything then, no, definitely not.
Andrea: So that was a big thing for kids, mostly?
Lynn Anne: Oh yeah, and adults! I mean, can you imagine? They can tell the exact size of my foot because I’m getting an x-ray. Wonderful! 
Andrea: Do you think the appeal was mostly seeing your bones?
Lynn Anne: Yes, of course! And it was new, and it was amazing. Like, “That’s my foot!” I mean, what doctor ever showed you an x-ray if you ever had one as a child? None! You know, as they sat smoking in their examining room. But you know, who knew that radiation was a problem or that it existed? You know, nobody. 

These exciting (but in all likelihood, highly regrettable) machines certainly drummed up business for the shoe stores during their heyday (around the 1950s), but by the 1970s, they had largely been banned.

Do you remember the shoe store x-ray machines?