Peter, Ephraim, Allen and Lewis Sells (grandsons of german immigrant Ludwig Sells) founded a circus in 1871, initially based on Cannonball George Richards and some horse acts. Allen Sells was the manager; Lewis was assistant manager and superintendent, with Ephraim as treasurer and superintendent of tickets. Peter was the "front man" for the show. Sailing from San Francisco October 15, 1871, the show was taken to Sydney, Australia, landing there November 12. They bought their first elephant 1873, and already in 1883 they had eight elephants. By 1890 the Sells Brothers Circus was the second largest circus in America, even visiting Australia in 1891.
In 1895, James A. Bailey acquired one-third interest in the circus. Ephraim, the eldest brother, died in 1898. After Ephraim's death, James Bailey of Barnum and Bailey and W.W. Cole (of Cole Brothers Circus) each acquired a quarter interest in the business.
The name was changed to Sells & Downs Shows for 1903, 1904 and 1905, (Martin Downs, owner).
After Peter and Allen died in 1904, Lewis Sells sold the remaining shares of the show to Bailey for $150,000 cash in 1905.
1906 also 1907, 1908 and 1909, the show was on the road as Cole Bros. World-Toured Shows (Martin Downs, owner). The property was sold at auction in January, 1910, by Fiss, Doerr & Carroll, New York horse dealers.