Reginald T. Sperry

R.T. Sperry was born in 1845 in Hartford, Connecticut, the youngest of three children of Dr. Theodore and Susan Sperry. His parents encouraged an early interest in art. As a young man, Sperry studied painting under Alfred Hart, who is best known for his later work as a railroad photographer. At 24, Sperry attended the National Academy of Design in New York City, in its new Venetian Gothic home at 23rd Street and Park Ave. Returning to Hartford after his studies, Sperry taught art at a local art academy and hung up his shingle as a commercial artist and designer, first as a painter of show cards and later specializing in wood engravings and drawing:

Hartford City Directory (1873)

Wood engravings and lithograph sketches were commonly used for illustrations in newspapers and magazines before halftone photography technology improved in the 1890s. The magazine industry boomed in post-Civil War America, distributed nationwide by railroads and catering to a growing middle class. Sperry created small spot illustrations for short stories and larger engravings for title pages in publications of all kinds. In 1874 he landed a commission to illustrate Mark Twain's Sketches, a small pamphlet of the celebrity author's work published by the American News Company in New York. That same year, Sperry moved to New York, and Twain moved into his celebrated Victorian mansion in Hartford.

Mark Twain's Sketches No. 1, illustrated by R.T. Sperry (1874)

The 32-page pamphlet featured thirteen Twain stories and twelve Sperry drawings in an affordable format sold at newsstands and train stations, but apparently it failed to draw an audience. The remaining copies were sold at a loss to an insurance company as advertising giveaways. Twain published the Sketches several years later in book form with sketches by a different artist.

Fortunately for us, Sperry continued drawing and in the 1880s created two intricate paper cutout models which are preserved in the Library of Congress. As a boon for paper model enthusiasts, both cutout kits have been scanned and are viewable in high resolution on the Library of Congress website, making it possible to easily print copies and try assembling them.

Model of the Travelers Insurance "Home Office" in Hartford, Connecticut (1880)

In 1880 Sperry was hired by Richard M. Johnson, manager of the New York office of the Travelers Insurance Company (located in the new Tribune Building skyscraper), to create a model of the home office of the company back in Hartford. The model includes a short history of the building written on the back rooftop. The building had previously been a residence occupied by several prominent Hartford families before it became a business office.

Detail of photograph by R.S. DeLamater of the "Home Office" in 1872. Photo courtesy of Travelers Insurance Company.

In the model, Sperry lists himself as a "designer of advertising novelties", but whether he was ever hired to create similar promotions for other clients is unknown. The next year, Johnson and Sperry published a second cutout model of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. The well-known church was then still led by its famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, the charismatic abolitionist and intellectual leader. And here we cross paths with Mark Twain again: his best-selling travelogue The Innocents Abroad is an account of a steamship tour taken with members of the Plymouth congregation a few years before the model was designed.

Instructions for the Model of Plymouth Church (1881)

The two cutouts include written instructions on how to build the models which provide a glimpse of the challenges of making paper models in the nineteenth century. To glue the paper, builders are advised to mix their own powdered gum arabic to soak overnight into a "thick, viscous mass", rather than rely on a store-bought mucilage, which the artist exclaims "is useless for this kind of work."

Detail of "The Home Office" (1880)

In other ways the paper cutouts are not so different from modern papercraft designs, despite their age. Or rather, it is the modern papercraft designs which are surprisingly unchanged from one hundred-forty years ago. Folds are indicated by dashed lines, with tiny x's marking reverse folds to be scored on the back side of the paper, just as they are marked on many kits nowadays. The two model designs are sophisticated model kits with detailed artwork on pieces large and small spread over several printed pages. They are not simplified toys for small children. Each model includes a base sheet to be mounted on sturdy pasteboard. There are no construction diagrams, but tiny letters and numbers indicate the order of in which the pieces should be assembled, and the written instructions help explain the assembly.

Sperry left New York in about 1900 and lived for short periods in Milwaukee and Indianapolis while working for local engraving companies. No doubt it was difficult to find illustration work at a time when newspapers and magazines were increasingly using photographs on their pages. Soon he returned to Hartford and continued working as an artist for hire as well as in the art office at a department store. He passed away in 1914 and is buried in Hartford's Zion Hill Cemetery.

A list of known published paper model work:

November 1880 The Home Office: Lithographed cutout model of Hartford Travelers Insurance office building, in collection of Library of Congress
December 1881 A Model of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lithographed cutout model of the famous pastor Henry Ward Beecher's church, in collection of Library of Congress


Art and Artists in Connecticut, Harry Willard French, Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1878

Mark Twain and His Illustrators, Vol II, Beverly David, Whitston Publishing Company, 2001