If you bought a quart or half-gallon of milk in the 1980s, the odds are good that it contained the image of a missing child. The half-pints served at school? Don’t talk to strangers.
The media landscape was very different from today. There were only a few national newspapers. CNN was an infant (born 01 June 1980), and the nightly national news (ABC, CBS, NBC) had time for only the highest profile (scary) cases. The World Wide Web was a decade away. There was no Amber Alert system, no national database tracking missing children.
On 25 May 1979, six-year old Etan Patz walked two blocks to his Manhattan bus stop. It was the first time he took that trip alone. He would not make it to school.
Etan was among the first non-celebrity missing children to gain national attention, the way JonBenét Ramsey would in 1996. In the early 1980s, Etan’s face appeared on milk cartons all over the country encouraging people to contact the authorities if they’d seen him. Etan’s case also led President Ronald Reagan to declare May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in 1983, and played a role in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
At a moment of national economic and political uncertainty, as fears of familial and national decline abounded, the image of imperiled white childhood resonated far and wide, from the prairies to the sea.
In the fall of 1984, Anderson & Erickson Dairy in Des Moines, Iowa, featured two missing Des Moines Register paper boys on their cartons. Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin had disappeared in 1982 and 1984, respectively.
Shortly after Martin’s abduction, Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush visited Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a campaign rally, during which the president addressed the paperboy disappearances. “We must continue cracking down on crime,” he declared.
With their striking images of lost and endangered (white) childhood innocence, these milk cartons confronted children and families gathered around the breakfast nook or dinner table, warning them of the dangers ostensibly threatening their way of life.
In December 1984, the National Child Safety Council launched the Missing Children Milk Carton Program. The cooperative effort would eventually involve more than 700 independent dairies as well as milk carton manufacturers Champion, International Paper, Potlatch, Westvaco and Weyerhauser.
Despite photos appearing on billions of milk cartons, “very few direct successes were tied to either local or national campaigns.” Perhaps that is because it’s not the stranger we should fear: it’s family members and acquaintances.
In 1996, the AMBER Alert System began in Dallas-Fort Worth, a joint effort of news broadcasters and local police. AMBER alerts go out via text messages and digital billboards on the nation’s highways, for example. The service is named for a nine-year-old girl from Arlington, Texas, Amber Hagerman; she was abducted and murdered in 1996.
Today’s AMBER alerts suffer from the same circumstances that surrounded the milk carton kids. Research shows that most children reported missing are from families with intense custody disputes, “family abductions.”
In 2017, a jury found Pedro Hernandez guilty of the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Etan Patz. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in federal prison.
Finally, then, as now, Black children “go missing” at a disproportinately greater rate than White children. However milk cartons primarily featured White kids, as do news reports.