Why Did Missing Children Appear on Milk Cartons?

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April 20 2012 5:53 PM

Why Did Missing Children Start Showing Up on Milk Cartons?

And why don't they appear on milk cartons today?

Milk cartons from The National Child Safety Council
Milk cartons from the National Child Safety Council

The FBI and the New York Police Department have resumed the search for Etan Patz, who went missing in 1979 at the age of 6. Patz was one of the first missing children to appear on a milk carton. How did photos of missing children end up on milk cartons?

It all started with a few pamphlets. In the 1970s, many police departments were hesitant to intervene when noncustodial parents made off with their children. They viewed the incidents as domestic disagreements rather than as true kidnappings. Frustrated custodial parents launched a movement to combat the problem, giving the crime a name: child snatching. Advocacy groups distributed pamphlets containing pictures of snatched children to principals and schoolteachers, because the noncustodial parent often enrolled the child in a new school under a different name.

Advocates broadened their campaign in the early 1980s to include all missing children. A handful of high-profile kidnappings had terrified the public: Etan Patz went missing in 1979, and Adam Walsh—the child of now-famous crime fighter John Walsh—was abducted and murdered in 1981. By including runaways in their estimates, advocates were able to claim that hundreds of thousands of children went missing every year. (Some even claimed 2 million children disappeared annually, but that number is probably inflated by any measure.)

These shocking statistics, paired with a few notorious crimes, mobilized businesses, public officials, and parents. Picking up on the anti-child-snatching pamphlets of the 1970s, a few dairies began to place pictures of missing children on milk cartons in 1984. It’s not clear, however, which company came up with the idea. Many point to Anderson Erickson Dairy, which printed the face of missing Iowa child Johnny Gosch on its cartons. Others claim Wisconsin’s Hawthorn Melody Farm Dairy was the first, agreeing to display a rotating group of missing Chicago children. Some sources have claimed that Patz was the first milk carton child.

These days we think of milk cartons as the sole product that displayed missing children, but dairies were far from alone in their advocacy. Missing children appeared on pizza boxes, grocery bags, and junk mail envelopes alongside the question, “Have you seen me?” The milk carton campaign was probably the most visible aspect of the movement—by 1985, 700 of the nation’s 1,800 independent dairies had adopted the practice. Though a few informants told police they recognized a child from a gallon of milk, there is no data on how many children were saved by the milk cartons.

Product packaging was only one aspect of 1980s-era missing-children campaigns. Lois Lane investigated missing-children cases in comic books. The Berenstain Bears warned children about stranger danger. The heroes of detective novels searched for abducted children. Civic groups fingerprinted children, and the prints were part of a kit that parents could give to police if a child disappeared. Children were taught to demand a “secret word” from a neighbor or friend sent to pick them up from soccer practice when mom or dad ran late at work. In probably the most effective innovation, police departments got better at communicating with each other about missing children.

Milk cartons eventually stopped featuring missing children in the late 1980s, after prominent pediatricians like Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton worried that they frightened children unnecessarily. Even as they waned, however, portraits on cartons remained a potent symbol. In 1988, presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt took heat for suggesting that fellow candidate Al Gore be featured on a milk carton after he skipped the Iowa caucuses.

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Explainer thanks Joel Best of the University of Delaware and author of Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.