When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.

On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz lobbied his parents for permission to walk to his school bus stop alone. It was the last day of classes before Memorial Day, and Patz argued that the stop was only two blocks from his family’s Lower Manhattan apartment building. He planned to get a soda at a local deli, he told them, then head straight for the bus. Etan's parents eventually relented, knowing it was a short walk and that their son was a responsible kid.

On September 5, 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch loaded up his newspaper carrier’s bag in Des Moines, Iowa and began making deliveries. He was trailed by his dog, Gretchen.

On August 12, 1984, Eugene Martin performed a similar ritual, heading off on his paper route in the same area of Des Moines. The 13-year-old normally made deliveries with his stepbrother, but had elected to go by himself that morning.

Patz never arrived at school; Gosch and Martin never returned from their delivery shifts. Gosch's dog, Gretchen, came home by herself.

In late 1984 and into the first part of 1985, the images of all three boys helped usher in a peculiar chapter in law enforcement history. They were among the first children to be featured on milk cartons, which asked for the public’s assistance in helping authorities nationwide locate missing kids. Their faces appeared on 3 to 5 billion dairy containers across the country, a concerted effort in a pre-internet era to disseminate information and solicit tips. The press dubbed them “the milk carton kids,” creating an indelible image of missing children in back-and-white photographs on the paper packaging that took up residence at breakfast tables in nearly every state.

As ubiquitous as these photos were, their effectiveness was questionable. It wasn’t long before child activists started to voice concern—not specifically for the abducted children, but for the kids who were receiving messages that strangers were dangerous and that they, too, might one day become a dairy industry-endorsed statistic. Despite law enforcement’s best intentions, the milk carton craze had the unintended consequence of scaring more children than it helped.

 
 

In the 1970s, a grassroots effort began to address the issue of noncustodial parents taking their own children without the consent of their legal guardians. Fathers and mothers frustrated over court custody rulings or expressing concern over how a child might be treated by the opposing parent would scoop up their kids and relocate to another state. Police were hesitant to get involved, believing it represented more of a domestic dispute and civil matter than an actual crime. If they did intervene, they often required parents to wait as long as 72 hours before allowing them to file a police report.

A new phrase, “child snatching,” entered the lexicon, and parent groups circulated pamphlets with information on missing children. Even if police were cooperative, the glacial process of faxing information to various police departments meant that a missing child and a rogue parent had plenty of time to disappear somewhere in the country before word ever got out.

A number of missing-child posters hang on a wall
Courtesy of National Child Safety Council

That was the state of public notification when Eugene Martin went missing in August 1984. Being the second paperboy in Des Moines to disappear following Johnny Gosch drew attention to both cases. After being approached by the children's parents and the Des Moines police chief, Anderson Erikson Dairy agreed to print photos of both boys on milk cartons in the Des Moines area in September 1984. A second factory, Prairie Farms Dairy, joined them. From there, dairies in Wisconsin, Illinois, and California followed, with Chicago’s launch in January 1985 drawing national media attention. By March of that year, 700 dairies were plastering billions of cartons with the faces of missing kids, even if they were from out of state. Etan Patz, for example, had his face printed on cartons in New Jersey and beyond, as abducted children could often be taken across state lines.

The project fell under the direction of the National Child Safety Council, a Michigan-based nonprofit whose founder, H.R. Wilkinson, had seen the Des Moines campaign and helped with its expansion. The general state of child welfare also received assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a subdivision of the Department of Justice created by then-president Ronald Reagan to help address what was growing into a matter of national concern. But the biggest participant may have been International Paper Company, a factory supplier that made printing plates of the photographs for dairies to use free of charge. (While dairies didn’t have to pay extra, the industry did lose money in the effort, as the photos were using space typically taken by paid advertising.)

While the milk cartons are the most frequently remembered component of the campaign, photos showed up in a variety of places. Utility companies stuffed envelopes with missing-child inserts on the assumption that most everyone needed to open and acknowledge their gas or electric bills. In New York City, hot dog vendors agreed to plaster their stands with missing-child posters. The photos popped up on grocery bags. In schools, single-serving cartons of milk were printed with tips on avoiding strangers courtesy of a mascot named Safetypup.

Initially, the initiative showed potential. In January 1985, a 13-year-old runaway named Doria Paige Yarbrough was watching television with her friends in Fresno, California when a news segment talking about the milk carton campaign came on; Yarbrough’s face was on one of the containers. Struck by what she had done, she returned home to her mother in Lancaster, California. In October 1985, 7-year-old Bonnie Bullock was eating cereal in Salida, Colorado when she looked up and saw her own face on a carton. She told a friend, who told her parents, who phoned police. Bullock had been a noncustodial abduction, taken from her father in Florida by her mother. She was reunited with him shortly thereafter.

While those cases drew national attention, they also made a point of demonstrating the enormous odds of the photos leading to a positive outcome. Neither child had been abducted by a stranger, which had a significantly more substantial chance of ending in tragedy. Nor did people seem to be able to compartmentalize the statistics being thrown around in the media. While a reported 1.5 million children were reported missing each year—a number that originated with the Department of Health and Human Services—only 4000 to 5000 cases were considered actual abductions. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted in over 12,000 cases in two-and-a-half years, but just 393 of those involved kids abducted by strangers.

No one was arguing those cases weren’t deserving of attention, but some reputable critics were arguing that a milk carton might not necessarily be the ideal method for capturing it.

 
 

By 1986, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was reporting that four children had been recovered as a result of their photograph being printed on the cartons, a number that grew to six by 1987. Considering the billions of cartons in circulation, however, that figure seemed only faintly promising.

The problem, as the Center would later admit, was that adults in a position to identify children or contact authorities weren’t paying much attention to the cartons. Most of the observation was done by their kids, who stared at the photos at the breakfast table. Rarely able to recognize anyone they knew, kids instead internalized the fear that they themselves might become victimized. While photos certainly helped—more than 100 children were located due to blanketing communities with their image—putting them on milk containers wasn't having the desired effect.

A milk carton displays photos of missing children.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Carton: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council

Renowned pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock spoke out against the campaign, voicing concern that the magnitude of the practice was teaching children about criminal behavior before they had the emotional maturity to deal with it. The American Academy of Pediatrics echoed his statements. The concept of “stranger danger,” which provoked anxiety in parents and kids alike, was statistically out of proportion with the chances a child was going to be abducted. And while tips did come in, they were rarely of any significance to the cases.

“What it did was raise the level of awareness,” Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother, told the Associated Press. “It didn’t necessarily bring us tips or leads we could actually use.”

Still, that awareness was crucial. And while the cartons may not have led directly to a child's recovery, it's impossible to measure how the practice may have acted as a preventative measure, discouraging kids from running away or perpetrators from committing an act that would likely bring about national attention.

By 1987, dairies began phasing out the practice, replacing the photographs with safety tips for kids. The increasing popularity of plastic milk jugs may have also hastened the demise of the campaign. By 1989, images of missing children had all but disappeared from breakfast tables. Improved telecommunications in the 1990s and beyond—including internet dispatches and Amber Alerts—made the relatively primitive method of milk carton messages obsolete.

The original “milk carton kids”—Patz, Gosch, and Martin—and their families that helped usher in the milk carton movement never benefited directly from it. Gosch and Martin have never been located and no suspects have ever been arrested. In 2012, a store clerk named Pedro Hernandez who worked in Etan Patz’s neighborhood confessed to his murder after his brother-in-law told police that Hernandez once admitted to being involved. Hernandez was tried and convicted of the crime in 2017, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

While his face has long since disappeared from all those millions of cartons, Patz’s legacy endures. In 1983, Reagan declared the date of his disappearance, May 25, as National Missing Children’s Day.

Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chuck Barris had a problem. As the creator and producer of a new ABC game show titled The Dating Game, Barris had thought it would be entertaining to see three men vie for the affections of a woman who quizzed them from behind a screen. Because they'd be unable to rely on visual cues or physical attraction, the contestant and her would-be suitors would have to assess their chemistry based on verbal interplay, and wouldn't see each other face-to-face until she selected a winner.

Unfortunately, early tapings of the game in 1965 had not gone well. Barris later recalled that both the men and women had tasteless responses, answering the contestant's questions with profane remarks full of sexual innuendo that would be unacceptable for daytime television. The shows could not be aired.

Then Barris had an idea. He asked a friend of his who was an actor to dress in a hat and raincoat to give the appearance of a law enforcement official. The man walked into the dressing room where the bachelors were waiting to go on air. He lied and told them that any profanity or overt sexual references would be a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, a federal offense. They might even get sentenced to jail time.

From that point on, there were no more problems with people uttering expletives on The Dating Game, a long-running series that acted as a precursor to The Bachelor as well as a host of other dating shows. Recognizable for its campy 1960s set, host Jim Lange blowing kisses at the audience, and its inane questioning of contestants, the show marked a pivotal shift away from game shows that offered monetary gain and instead offered a potentially greater reward: true love.

Barris, a game show legend who would go on to create The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, was an ABC executive at the time. As head of daytime programming, he spent much of his time fielding what he thought were many ill-conceived pitches for shows from producers. He told fellow daytime executive Leonard Goldberg that he could come up with something better. But when Goldberg told him to try, Barris replied he had a wife and child and couldn’t spare the time. Goldberg offered to listen to an informal pitch. Barris came up with The Dating Game.

Some have observed the genesis of the show came as a result of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which posited that women could enjoy more casual relationships without the prospect of marriage looming over their heads. In the more sexually adventurous ‘60s, a show about a simple courtship—particularly one steered by a woman—was still seen as progressive.

At the time, game shows were relegated to contests that typically featured a prize, or at least bragging rights to having won. Jeopardy! and The Price is Right were on the air handing out cash and cars. But Barris was more interested in an intangible benefit. Though the woman and her chosen suitor would be sent out for a dinner date, the expense was minimal, and no one was paid to appear on the show. For viewers, it was about who would find love—or at least the appearance of it.

To select contestants to appear on the series, Barris devised a referral system. After recruiting an initial round of potential participants, his staff had them fill out several forms consisting of their personal information. One of the sheets was reserved for people they already knew and who they felt would be a good fit for the series; a blue form was used for bachelors; and pink for single women. Staffers would be on the phone all day, calling candidates and ushering them in for further evaluation.

For Barris, a contestant on The Dating Game needed to be gregarious, glib, and able to elaborate on answers. If questions weren’t up to snuff, his writers would help craft queries meant to elicit slightly salacious—but never profane—responses. (The questions ranged from perceptive to queries like, “If men are what they eat, which vegetable do you consider yourself?”) Test games would be held in Barris’s Hollywood offices. Out of a pool of 1000 possible contestants, the show would decide on 132 of them to fill their taping needs.

 

For a host, Barris chose Jim Lange, a popular radio personality, to move the game along. Each episode consisted of two complete games, usually a woman interrogating three men—though the format was soon changed to allow for a switch in roles, with three women vying for one man. Barris also enlisted celebrities or soon-to-be celebrities like John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Selleck, as well as occasionally sprinkling in a crush, work colleague, or someone else the contestant might know in their private life.

The show was an immediate hit on daytime when it premiered in December 1965. The series soon expanded to primetime in 1966 with a slight change in format: The “dates” now included travel to romantic hotspots like Paris and Rome in an effort to broaden the scope of the show. These trips involved the use of chaperones—a necessity, Barris said, because few parents would allow their young daughters out of the country with a veritable stranger.

The Dating Game aired on ABC through 1973 and entered syndication for one year. In 1978, it went into syndication again (Barris was no longer directly involved), with Lange returning as host. This version, however, was perceived as lewd, with contestants and producers making less of an effort to stifle the sexual wordplay. (“Let’s hear about your tool chest” was among the less-than-clever prompts offered by contestants.) Various other iterations have aired over the years, morphing into the more elaborate find-a-mate series like The Bachelor, which not only expects contestants to have chemistry but eventually wed. Strangely, the conceit seems more old-fashioned than the show that started the genre.

Those shows owe quite a debt to Barris, who eventually left television altogether after feeling as though he was becoming pigeonholed by his game show successes. Barris later penned his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell, directed by George Clooney, and written by Charlie Kaufman), in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA and executed targets while chaperoning winners of The Dating Game. That sensational assertion is in doubt, but Barris’s contributions to romance as a television commodity are not. The notion of dating as entertainment goes back to his original idea, a simple partition, and a man in a raincoat.

The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet

Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Men aren't the only ones to have rocked the style: Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna have both sported the look—albeit a decade apart.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it "nonsense."

Dacre Montgomery in 'Stranger Things'
Dacre Montgomery rocks a mullet as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Netflix

But try telling that to the hairstyle's latest throng of fans, many of whom have been inspired to go back in time for the short-long look by Netflix's Stranger Things. "I cut at least one or two a week,” London hairstylist Idalina Domingos, who sports a shaggy-styled mullet herself, told The Guardian in August 2019. "There are these modern mullets, people are coming round to the idea. It’s a fun haircut to have and it's only going to get more popular."

For others, the cut is timeless. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, is hosting its third annual Mulletfest, a celebration of all things badly shorn, on February 29, 2020. “We have so many mullets in town,” co-organizer Sarah Bedford said. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years."

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