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.]