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The development of footwear sizing systems

Delving into the history – and legends – behind the variety of modern shoe size scales in use today.

by Stuart Morgan

Image ©

The proper fit of an item of footwear is impossible to define without some form of sizing. Perhaps many hundreds of years ago this was not such a problem, as shoes were made to fit the individual’s feet, or the wearer had to make do with selecting from 'small', 'a little bigger' and 'quite big' during a visit to the town's market. When history saw a dramatic growth in population, commercialism, mechanism and customer choice, however, it was inevitable that shoemakers would have to devise a way to manufacture footwear in certain, set sizes.

Most forms of measurement from times past – even some in common use today – are based on some part of the human body or some action a person may take. For example, the 'inch' was originally the width of the middle of the thumb across the knuckle. The 'foot' was just that – the length of an adult male foot, the 'span' was the full stretch of the hand from the tip of the little finger to the thumb (about nine inches) and the 'yard' was the length of the outstretched arm, from shoulder to fingertips, or on occasion, nose to fingertips.

Not surprisingly, such loose definitions were known to cause arguments (and perhaps even violence) in business dealings. As a result, some means of standardising units of measurement was sought. In England, the humble barleycorn – literally, the kernel from the seed of the barley plant – was chosen to be the basis of a new measuring system. According to The Composition of Yards and Perches, a mediaeval statute which is said to date to somewhere between 1266 and 1303, 'three grains of barley dry and round do make an inch, 12 inches make one foot, three feet make one yard, five yards and a half make a perch, and 40 perches in length and four in breadth make an acre'.

Image © Craig Nagy

A head of barley, showing the barleycorns which became the basis for a number of modern shoe sizing systems

Of course, how long was a barleycorn? The actual length of a modern kernel of barley can vary from as short as 4mm (0.16in) to as long as 15mm (0.59in) depending on the cultivar. Nevertheless, mediaeval sources recognised the average length of a grain of barley as being close to one-third of an inch.

While it was good to have some definition of an inch, there was still confusion with larger measures. For instance, a Saxon foot in England was 39 barleycorns long, whereas over the border in Wales, a foot was only 27 barleycorns in length. In 1324, King Edward II of England succumbed to pressure from businessmen of the day demanding clarification, and so made an official decree. The British standard for an inch would be measured as three barleycorns laid end-to-end, with 12 inches to a foot and three feet making a yard. While this was a step in the right direction, it was still reliant on correctly sized barleycorns and honest tradesmen. Over the years that followed, shoemakers and other craftsmen began to adopt the barleycorn/inch measurement and apply it to their specific trades.

The modern systems emerge

Image ©

Trying to find the right size – an illustration from an 1865 magazine

From these rather crude methods of measuring, the systems in use today were developed in such countries as Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the USA. Interestingly, these countries then devised their own way of numbering shoe sizes. For example, A UK woman’s size 5 is called a size 7 in the USA (although some years ago this was a size 6½, with an American man’s size 12 being the equivalent to a UK man's size 11. Just to add a level of confusion, two systems were apparently adopted in the USA – the 'common' and the less popular ‘standard’. Both were very similar but not exact equivalents. Producers and retailers in Australia and New Zealand use both the UK and US systems, depending on the gender of the wearer and the type of footwear involved.

In an effort to develop a shoe size guide, the 'Ritz Stick' was invented around 1913, and patented in 1916. Featuring a flat wooden scale with a fixed heel stop and sliding toe stop, it is said to have been the first nationally recognised device for foot measurement in the USA. Manufactured by American Automatic Devices Co, the Ritz stick proved very popular during the early 1920s. In 1988 this device, which is still being manufactured today, was modified to include women's sizing.


An example of Charles Brannock’s measuring device, first patented in the 1920s

Not many years after the introduction of the Ritz Stick, New York-based inventor Charles Brannock reportedly spent two years developing a simple means of measuring the length, width, and arch length of the human foot. His first prototype was patented in the 1920s and he later formed the Brannock Device Company to manufacture and sell the product. Mr Brannock led the company until his death in 1992 at the age of 89. Salvatore Leonardi purchased the company from the Brannock Estate in the following year, and still manufactures several models of the device.

Putting it in writing

Interestingly, the first description of a modern shoe sizing system in Britain used quarter-inch increments rather than those of one-third inch. The first recorded description of a system can be found in The Academy of Armoury and Blazon, published in 1688 by genealogist Randle Holme.

He wrote: "The size of a shooe [sic] is the measure of its length which is in Children divided into 13 parts; and in Men and Women into 15 parts; the first of these being five inches long before it be taken for a size; what the shooe exceeds that length, every fourth part of an inch is taken for a size 1,2,3 and so forwards to 12 which is called the Boys or Girls thirteens, or the short thirteens, and contains in length 8 inches and a quarter, from which measure of 8 inches and a quarter the Size of Men and Women, called the long size or Man’s size begins at 1,2,3 etc. to the number 15, each size being the fourth part of an inch as aforesaid, so that a Shooe of the long fifteens is in length 12 inches just."

This highlights that some shoemakers were producing sizes based on one barleycorn – one-third of an inch increments – while others were sizing their shoes every quarter inch.

Written records about shoe sizing systems are scarce, with the next documented information probably dating from 1856, when Robert Gardiner of London published The Illustrated Handbook of the Foot, in which he mentioned one-third of an inch being the measurement between sizes. A detailed sizing system was introduced by New York businessman Edwin Simpson in 1880, with the US industry generally adopting it about a decade later.

The size 13 mystery

Why do children's shoe sizes in the UK and the USA run from 0 to 13, and then start again at 1 for the adult sizes? A number of theories have been published, one of which claims that the length of the smallest footwear made by early English shoemakers started at a length of four inches. This was the average width of the hand across the knuckles (known as a 'hand', and still in use to measure the height of horses), and which approximately matched the length of a child’s foot when it was about ready for its first shoe.

From this starting point measurement, it is claimed, the shoemakers added a span (already mentioned, and some nine inches, which some deemed to be the length of the average child’s foot at puberty) as a good place to start sizes for adults. The four inches of the hand plus the nine inches of the span equals 13 inches – allegedly a good number to end the children’s shoe sizes.

Another theory suggests that because a 12-inch rule actually has 13 marks if you count the zero, shoemakers of times past changed the start to be a size one and ended up with 13 lines. Supposedly, once the original inch measurements were ignored, this number was used for the largest children's shoe size (using the barleycorn measurements between sizes), before adult’s sizes started.

These ideas for the source of the 13 sizes of children's shoes may well be fanciful, with the true reason having been lost in time. What is obvious, however, is that tradition still carries great weight with the British and American footwear industry – one that it is unwilling to lose.

Opposition to half sizes

While the UK was the birthplace of the shoe sizing system in use there and in the USA, the American footwear industry quickly began to develop it further. As an example, half sizes appeared in the USA in 1887, an idea that was thereafter adopted by British manufacturers and retailers. However, producing shoes with one-sixth of an inch between sizes was not immediately popular due to the increased stock levels required, and most stores in the USA only starting offering half sizes at the turn of the century. Many retailers were of the opinion that, as consumers had lived without half sizes, there was no real need to go to the added expense. Over time, other store owners, who aggressively marketed that the half sizes they stocked provided a better fit, won out. Their more reluctant competitors bowed to the inevitable business pressure and followed suit.

Shoe widths

Another instance of American shoemakers leading from the front was in the production of footwear in a variety of width fittings. This was proposed in the already-mentioned system introduced by Edwin Simpson in 1880. His idea was finally adopted by the US Retail Boot & Shoe Dealers' Association seven years later, yet even by 1900, a substantial proportion of shoes sold in that country were only available in one width fitting or, sometimes 'slim' or 'fat'. It was not until the 1920s that an increased range of widths became generally available. Today, footwear buyers in the USA and the UK have a number of width fittings to choose from. Depending on the manufacturer (some offering more than others, with occasionally no choice at all being given), these can vary from 'very narrow' to 'very wide', with several options in between.

Going metric

Other nations have developed and adopted completely different methods of shoe sizing compared to that used in the UK, the USA and associated countries. For example, in mainland Europe and some Latin American countries, the 'continental system' (also known as the 'Paris Point') is used, which grew from the metric system of weights and measures. The Brazilian shoe size system, however, deducts the number two from the continental system.

History shows that several men contributed to the birth of the metric system. One of these was Flemish mathematician, military engineer and physicist Simon Stevin who, in 1586, published a small pamphlet called De Thiende (The Tenth), which is credited by historians as being the basis of modern notation for decimal fractions. In 1668, the first secretary of England’s Royal Society, John Wilkins, tried to devise a 'universal standard of measure', so assisting with the evolution of the metric system. Then two years later, French scientist and clergyman Gabriel Mouton proposed metric measurements, and his idea for a standard measurement of length, based on the circumference of the Earth, proved very influential.

In 18th century Europe, each nation had its own system of units of measurements. While some countries saw the advantages of harmonising their units of measure with those of their trading partners, this idea proved very unpopular with businessmen who were profiting from variations in units of measure. This problem seemed to have been particularly prevalent in France, where the inconsistency in the size of units of measure was one of the causes that, in 1789, led to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the bloodshed that it brought. The metric system was first adopted at the end of the French Revolution in 1799 and, after several modifications, the country officially adopted the measurement system a few years later. Most other countries in Europe also took metric measurement to heart.

In the metric system of footwear sizing, each full size is 2/3cm less than a UK/US full size increment, but is more than a half UK/UK size. Like the UK and US systems, the continental system gives each size a number – for example, a woman’s UK size 8 shoe is called a European size 42.

Image © Uwe Malitz |

The metric system of shoe sizing is used in many parts of the world

In an effort to overcome the existence of the European and UK shoe sizing systems, a third scale was devised in the early 1970s, called the 'Mondopoint' system. However, rather than successfully replacing the two older systems, Mondopoint effectively became a third system which is used extensively today in China, Japan and others parts of Asia. While also based on metric measurements, shoe sizes are not indicated in the same way as in the UK or European systems. Instead, the foot length is indicated in millimetres, using increments of 5mm. In this way, a UK Men’s size 9 would be expressed as a Mondopoint size 270, indicating 270mm. Sometimes the size may be reported in centimetres - that is, size 27 – particularly in Japan. The Mondopint system was also used in the former East Germany.

Hard to change?

It is clear from researching this article that the truth behind the development of the earliest shoe size system is lost in the mists of time, as the saying goes. As we have seen, even in this 21st century, two of the world’s major systems, featuring in the UK and the USA, are steadfastly using calculations developed many centuries ago. Even the more modern metric systems have their own quirks, and making an exact match between sizes is deemed by many to be a fruitless task.

What also becomes obvious is that the development of the shoe sizing systems in existence today are often the cumulative result of many years – sometimes centuries – of discussion, arguments, opposition and, in some cases, revolution. What we have today appears to be jealousy guarded by national interests, and may stay this way for a long time to come.

How can we help?

Please contact SATRA’s footwear team ( for assistance with shoe sizing issues.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 34 of the June 2016 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »