Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail

MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

QVC's Strangest Gift Item: The Poopin' Moose

lemonmmermaid via YouTube
lemonmmermaid via YouTube

The official name of woodworker Darryl Fenton’s novelty item was the Wooden Moose Candy Dispenser. Handcrafted in his Wasilla, Alaska workshop, the unfinished, sanded animal carving had a rectangular opening in the back that could be stuffed with candy pieces. When the moose’s head was lifted, it dispensed the candy in a way that resembled a bowel movement. 

QVC sold 30,000 of them in 10 minutes.

Colloquially known as the Poopin' Moose, the wooden gift was discovered during the shopping network’s 50 state tour in 1997. Arriving in Alaska, buyers were presented with the moose by Glenn Munro of Unique Concepts, which had licensed the moose from Denton. The carving had been sold at regional fairs; QVC, knowing a demonstrable item when they saw one, agreed to put it on the air, leaving the sales pitch to its team of accomplished hosts.

"What better way to dispense your candy than through the butt of a moose?" wondered host Pat Bastia. Others stuffed brown M&Ms into the moose; host Steve Bryant pondered whether or not putting a Hershey chocolate bar in the item would result in diarrhea. When the moose became clogged with peanut candies, Bryant declared it "constipated" and inserted a finger to remove the blockage.

Denton, who had patented the device in 1995, couldn’t handcraft enough to meet demand. He outsourced production to several other plants; via Unique and other outlets, he sold over 100,000 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

As the moose’s profile grew, Denton added animals that could defecate treats on demand: buffalo, mules, bunnies, and alpacas. He produced a premium Millennium Pooper—a walnut-carved moose with ivory eyes—and sold it for $150. A Pocket Pooper that miniaturized the moose was available for a brief time.

Unfortunately, Denton’s commitment to his craft would prove to be his undoing. In 2004, a rival poop gift named Mr. Moose was released. Offering a similar experience to the Poopin’ Moose, it was made in China and retailed for just $25, a fraction of the $100 handmade version. Suffering from neck problems and a financial crunch, Denton decided to discontinue further production. It never again appeared on QVC’s airwaves, a fact that disappointed onetime host Bryant, who spoke to author David Hofstede in 2004.

"It was handcrafted, provided jobs for people in Alaska, and it pooped M&Ms," he said. "How cool is that?"

Udder Success: The 'Got Milk?' Campaign Turns 25

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Got Milk?

Shortly after he was hired as the executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, Jeff Manning had an epiphany. It was 1993. Sales of milk were sagging both in California and nationwide. Milk industry advocates had spent much of the 1980s promising that “Milk Does a Body Good,” with an ad campaign focused on its calcium and protein benefits. Consumers knew milk was good for them. But Manning realized they just didn’t care.

Instead, the ad agency Manning hired to revamp milk’s reputation focused on the complete opposite. Rather than dwell on everything milk could do for them, they decided that television spots should highlight the consequences of going without milk. Maybe it meant having trouble chewing a dry peanut butter sandwich or cookie. Or not being able to enjoy a bowl of cereal. During a brainstorming session, ad partner Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners jotted down a tagline: “got milk.” Then he added a question mark. And for the next two decades, the Got Milk campaign, and its slogan, became as ubiquitous as Nike’s declaration that athletes “Just Do It.”

As recognizable as the ads were, sales figures told a slightly different story. While more people may have been thinking about milk than ever before, that didn’t necessarily mean they were drinking it.

 

As a result of public education and private health care, milk was a staple of kitchens everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. Early 20th-century studies of questionable veracity fed milk to rats and marveled at their shiny fur. (Rats that got vegetable oil were scrawny.) Children lined up in front of steel milk containers at schools to get their daily serving; pregnant women were told copious amounts would be good for their baby. For many people, mornings were marked by the sound of clinking bottles of milk left on doorsteps, as common as mail delivery.

In the 1970s, a shift began. Milk, while still considered a fundamental part of diets, was seeing increased competition from soft drinks. Aggressive marketing campaigns from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi positioned soda as fun to consume, offering caffeinated energy and enticing packaging that sometimes promised prizes. Milk, in contrast, was plodding along in plastic or cardboard containers. If there was any carton design at all, it was typically a simple illustration of a cow. Drinking it became almost perfunctory.

By the 1990s, milk was under siege by soft drinks, sports drinks, and Snapple, which cloaked some of its sugary offerings in an all-natural aesthetic. Milk was on the ropes: Continuing to insist it was a healthier option was no longer effective, nor was it enough.

Research by Goodby Silverstein & Partners revealed an alternative. When discussing milk consumption, consumers kept returning to the idea that running out was a source of frustration. While they may not have longed for milk as a rule, the times they could have used it—in coffee, for cookies, for cereal—and didn’t have it gave them a fresh appreciation for the beverage. When the agency put a hidden camera in their own offices to capture their staff's reaction to running out of milk, they noted it was one of disappointment. (And sometimes expletives.)

With Manning’s consent, the ad agency decided to focus on a “Milk and …” campaign, highlighting all the ways milk and food go together. That was ground down further, with Goodby and his partners making an open-ended question of a milk-deprived scenario. “Got Milk?” would present a worst-case scenario, letting consumers ruminate on the consequences of finding an empty carton. The ads would be funded California's major milk processors, with three cents from each gallon of milk sold going toward the campaign—which amounted to approximately $23 million annually.

The first televised spot for “Got Milk?” is probably still the best-known. It features a radio listener eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich while following along with an on-air trivia contest. When the host wants to know who shot Alexander Hamilton, the man knows it’s Aaron Burr. But without milk to wash down his food, it comes out as “Anon Blurrg.”

The spot, which was directed by future Transformers filmmaker Michael Bay, was an immediate sensation when it premiered in October 1993. More than 70 spots followed, many presenting a similar doomsday scenario. In a Twilight Zone premise, a man arrives in what he believes to be heaven only to find he has an endless supply of cookies but only empty cartons of milk. In another spot, a newly-married woman expresses disappointment in her choice of a spouse. He thinks it's because he bought her a fake diamond; she's upset because he emptied a carton. Time after time, a lack of milk proves uncomfortable at best or life-altering at worst.

If the milk industry had stuck with “Got Milk?” and nothing else, it probably would have remained a cultural touchstone. But in 1995, the campaign got an additional boost when the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, another pro-milk lobbying group, licensed the slogan to use with their own growing milk mustache print ad campaign spearheaded by the Bozell Worldwide ad agency. Celebrities like Harrison Ford, Kermit the Frog, and dozens of others appeared with a strip of milk across their upper lip. Manning also agreed to license the tagline to third parties like Nabisco—which printed it on their Oreos—and Mattel, which issued a milk-mustached Barbie. Cookie Monster endorsed the campaign. At one point, 90 percent of consumers in California were familiar with the “Got Milk?” effort, an astounding level of awareness.

Being amused by the spots was one thing. But was anyone actually drinking more milk because of them?

 

Milk lobbyists in California pointed out that the ads arrested the decline of milk consumption that had plagued the industry for decades. In 1994, for example, 755 million gallons were sold in the state, up from 740 million gallons in 1993. Manning also cited figures that indicated "Got Milk?" helped halt a slide that could have cost the industry $255 million annually in California alone—a drop-off that was stopped by that $23 million in ad spending.

But overall, it was tough for milk to regain some of the lost loyalty it had enjoyed in the 1950s. Between 1970 and 2011, average consumption went from 0.96 cups daily to 0.59 cups. With so many beverage options, consumers were often pushing the milk carton aside and reaching for Gatorade or soda instead. Changes in food habits didn’t help, either. Fewer people were eating cereal for breakfast, instead looking for yogurt or other low-calorie options.

“Got Milk?” was informally retired in 2014, replaced by a “Milk Life” campaign that once again brought nutrition back to the forefront.

Today, the average American drinks roughly 18 gallons of milk per year. (Unless, of course, they’re lactose-intolerant.) In 1970, it was 30 gallons. But there is hope: Plant-based milk made from almonds and other less-conventional sources are growing in the marketplace. “Got Coconut Milk?” may not be as catchy, but it might soon be more relevant than the alternative.

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