Milk Carton Faces Tell Lies, and I Got Proof


Brian Palmer looks back at the missing-children scare of the 1980s and its most famous cultural artifact, the face on the milk carton:

America's most wanted.

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.)

At that point the milk carton campaign began, and the faces of absent children began to appear on the most maternal of mass-produced cardboard containers. They showed up elsewhere, too:

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.

Spot the kidnapper.

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.

I remember the fingerprinting. The police had a booth at the local street festival, and there was a long line of families waiting to have their children's prints taken. Probably not the most enjoyable way for a kid to spend an afternoon at the fair.

The cartons may have disappeared but they were ubiquitous for a while, a product of paranoia that in turn amplified the atmosphere of fear. In 1986 the police raided the home of Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, searching for evidence to support the obscenity charges that would soon hit the band. "One of my roommates had been collecting milk-carton kids and lining our kitchen walls with them," Biafra later recalled, and the decor alarmed an officer:

this cop walks in with his Eliot Ness trench coat, asking, "What are all those pictures of missing children doing on your kitchen wall? Do you know where they are?"

[Title explained here.]

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  1. this cop walks in with his Eliot Ness trench coat, asking, “What are all those pictures of missing children doing on your kitchen wall? Do you know where they are?”

    If the guy had the courage of a berserker, he would have answered.

    “Yes; directly above the center of the Earth.”

  2. As soon as anyone mentions missing children on milk cartons I think of Jello.

    1. I think of the Blur video for “Coffee and TV”.

  3. My dad always refused to get us kids fingerprinted. When I got older I remember him saying when it came up in conversation, “The only use for fingerprinting children is to make it easier to identify the body.”

    1. Not true! It helps to identify which of the hoodlums is on your lawn!

    2. Well, if my kid turned up dead in a ditch 250 miles from my house, I’d rather they’d be able to identify her.

      So I don’t have much of an issue with it.

      I do still refuse to do business with banks who look to get fingerprint IDs on checks.

  4. this cop walks in with his Eliot Ness trench coat, asking, “What are all those pictures of missing children doing on your kitchen wall? Do you know where they are?”

    So the cop was suggesting this concerned citizen should just throw away all those poor children’s only chance of being rescued?

  5. Is it just me or does it seem like the last 3rd of this article is missing? You know the one, the part with the actual point the author was trying to make? As it stands all he’s done is documented that in the 80’s there was a lot of fear about child abductions without commenting on said fear at all.

    1. Alarmists. BAD!!

      1. In the past 5 years alone, cases of alarmism have gone up 11 billionty percent!! Something must be done!

  6. I kinda new the whole milk carton photo was pure hokum especially when in light of that case of a supposedly abducted child who in the end was not abducted, he simply became an adult overnight and was living with some woman while working for a toy manufacturing company.

    1. You joke, but you forget about the 12-year old boys that get abducted and returned to their parents in Fort Lauderdale eight years later, only to run off again with their captors.

      1. You left out the fact that the 12-year old boy was returned to his parents without having apparently aged a single day despite the passage of eight years.

        1. Probably because his face was on a milk carton. Like all photographs, the picture on the carton sealed his soul, which included his preserved youth. And on the 4th of July, no less.

  7. Some even claimed 2 million children disappeared annually, but that number is probably inflated by any measure.

    You overlook the technique of including aborted fetuses.

    1. Nah, it just includes all of the ones who “disappear” for 10 seconds until the momentarily startled parent calls their name and they come out from under the clothes rack they were playing hide and seek in.

    2. That would have to be inflated.

      There are roughly 70 million “children” in the US at any given time. “Childhood” is a period that lasts for 18 years. So assume even distribution, that comes out to 4 million children of each age at any given time.

      If 2 million kids were abducted per year, again assume even distribution and you come up with about 112 thousand kids of each age being abducted each year. This means that a child has a 2.8% chance of being abducted every year of their life

      If you have a 2.8% chance of being abducted in an 18 year period that means that 50% of all children will have been abducted at some point in their lives.

      The only thing which would lower that percentage is if you presumed that there were a LOT of kids getting abducted multiple times or if the original estimate is inflated massively.

      Given that as adults most of us don’t know ANYONE who was ever abducted I think we can safely say that the estimate is inflated by at least a factor of 10 and very possibly by a factor of 100.

      After all, even if it is only 20,000 kids a year being abducted that still means 5 out of every 1000 Americans will have been abducted at some point in their lives, a number which frankly seems too high because it would mean that on average we all should know one or more “victims of abduction”.

  8. Remember when the annual IRS 1040 instructions included pictures of snatched kids – one photo of them at the time and another what they “may look like today?” I can understand babies not knowing they had been snatched, but what accounts for eight and ten year olds that are still “missing” twenty years later (and I’m not talking about those truly murdered)?

  9. My son got separated from us at a street festival when he was about 5 (The wife assumed I had him. No, why would I have him, I asked her, he was standing next to YOU when you said you were going in the other direction?)

    He wandered around for 15 minutes before the wife came back and wondered where he was and it took about another 5-7 minutes to find him, but holy fuck, were those few minutes terror-inducing. I can’t imagine what the parents of genuinely missing kids go through.

  10. On the one hand, possible molestation and death. On the other, rich, delicious ice cream.

  11. Take my advice, I’m only tryin’ ta school ya.

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