With magnificent border-work exemplifying the epitome of 1900 style, this poster is headlined by a trio of photorealistic cameos of the circus-master Sells Brothers and Forepaugh. Only Lewis Sells was still alive and actively managing the circus at the time of printing.
Circuses were always chancy operations; mountebanks and scammers abounded. In many posters of the this period, regal portraits of the proprietors lent a bit of credibility toward the purchase of one's circus tickets. Here, however, the irony is overwhelming: Adam Forepaugh died in 1890; his name was sold to James Bailey, who partnered with the Sells Brothers to create these "Enormous Shows Combined," as a forerunner of Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey. In this earlier image of the founders / partners, the third Sells brother, Ephraim, makes an appearance.
The Sells Brothers (L & R) merged with Adam Forepaugh in 1900 to create the Forepaugh & Sells Bros. "Big United Shows." Adam Forepaugh created many notable innovations in circus history, including a "wild west show," the first beauty pageant in America, and hired one of the first African-Americans in the circus industry as an elephant trainer. As we've said elsewhere, owners' portraits were meant to establish integrity and legitimacy; in reality, Forepaugh was rather unscrupulous: whitewashing a grey elephant to one-up P.T. Barnum's own "white elephant," for example.
It's apocryphal: we're not entirely sure P.T. Barnum actually said "There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take 'em," but that doesn't mean derivative con-artists didn't take his lead. Circuses were such a large money maker around the turn of the century, many fake and fly-by-night operations emerged, either taking the ticket sale money and running out of town or performing with far fewer acts and animals than originally advertised. Having the owners' sober faces on a poster instilled confidence in potential customers. "As a general thing," P.T. Barnum actually said, "I have not 'duped the world' nor attempted to do so... I have generally given people the worth of their money twice told."