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99% Invisible

Milk Carton Kids

On a Sunday morning in 1982, in Des Moines, Iowa, Johnny Gosch left his house to begin his usual paper route.  A short time later, his parents were awakened by a phone call–it was a neighbor—their paper hadn’t come. When the Gosches went looking for Johnny they found only his red wagon full of newspapers, abandoned on the sidewalk.

Johnny Gosch was 13 when he disappeared. He had blue eyes and dirty blond hair with a small gap between his front teeth. And his would be the first face of a missing child ever printed on a milk carton.

johnny

Johnny Gosch. Image via Wiki Commons and True Crime Diva

Johnny’s face wouldn’t find its way onto a milk carton right away though. In September of 1982, when he disappeared, the milk carton program didn’t exist yet, and in fact, Johnny’s parents struggled to get the authorities to take their son’s case seriously. Police were skeptical that he had really been abducted. This sort of thing was just not supposed to happen in wholesome towns in Middle America.

At the time of Johnny’s disappearance there was no legal distinction between a missing child and a missing adult. As such, Johnny’s parents had to wait three days before authorities would consider him a “missing person.” While the Gosches continued to search for their son, Noreen Gosch helped write legislation that would distinguish children from adults in missing persons cases in the state of Iowa.

And then, two years after Johnny, another paperboy named Eugene Martin went missing from a nearby neighborhood. This time a relative working at Anderson & Erickson Dairy got his employer to help. The result was a local milk carton campaign featuring the images of Eugene and Johnny. Within weeks, cartons with images of the two kids were all over the city.

Missing Photo Carton (2)

The original milk carton kids: Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin via AE Dairy

Other area dairies got on board and the endeavor quickly went national, spreading to 700 independent dairies coordinated in part by the National Child Safety Council.

On larger cartons destined for home refrigerators, two children were put side by side. On smaller ones, such as those found in school lunches, a single child would be featured. The children depicted were generally selected from a pool of those presumed to have been abducted by strangers.

face on the milk carton

Variant covers of Face on the Milk Carton, a novel by Caroline B. Cooney published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers in 1990

As many as 5 billion milk cartons were printed with the images and details of missing children from around the country. But despite the impressive circulation of these images, very few direct successes were tied to either local or national campaigns. Most of the children featured on milk cartons were never found, including Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin. One child in particular was a compelling exception—a little girl who one day came face to face with her own image on a carton in the supermarket.

Taken from her father by her mother and stepfather (rather than a stranger), Bonnie Lohman was not a typical candidate for a milk carton. Still, her father managed to get her included.

Abducted at the age of 3, Bonnie grew up living in places like Saipan and Hawaii, frequently dwelling in shacks and rarely allowed outdoors. She was slowly given more freedom as the years passed. One exceptional day, after moving to Colorado, she went with her stepfather to the grocery store for milk, where at age 7 she came face to face with her image on a carton.

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The photo of Bonnie used on the milk carton. The image would have been in black and white with the word MISSING across the top. Image courtesy of Bonnie Lohman.

Bonnie could not read and did not know the box had the words MISSING CHILD across the top. It might have ended there it were not for the hubris of one of her abductors. Her stepfather not only bought that carton of milk but he also cut out the image and allowed her to save it.

Though she was warned by her stepdad to keep the milk carton image a secret, Bonnie accidentally left it (inside a box of her toys) at the house next door. Police were called and Bonnie was reunited with her father.

Bonnie’s story was a rare win in a campaign that was largely unsuccessful at locating missing children. The milk cartons were successful however, at sparking social and political change. They raised awareness and contributed to legislative efforts including the Missing Children Assistance Act.

missing kid utility bill

Missing child on utility bill via quotulatiousness

As the carton campaign wound down, it also gave way to a series of related campaigns on pizza boxes, utility bills and grocery bags.

carton campaign newspaper

Feature story from The Evening News, March 3 1985

Still, none of these quite struck a nerve like the faces of missing children featured on milk cartons, an inevitable source of conversation for families sitting down at the table together to share a meal.

dairy

Images via Dairy Foods

Reporter Annie Brown spoke with Noreen Gosch, mother of Johnny Gosch and author of the Johnny Gosch Bill; Barbara Huggett of the National Child Safety Council; Paul Mokrzycki-Renfro, historian at the University of Iowa; and Bonnie Lohman, who was found through the milk carton campaign.

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