By Saimi Rote Bergmann
Back before cars, when horsepower meant horse-powered, wagon teams sported harnesses decorated with bells. American wagoners took pride in their expensive brass bells – some even filed the bells a bit to give theirs a unique sound.
If a teamster’s wagon got mired in mud or broke down and he needed help from another wagoner, it was customary for him to relinquish his bells to the rescuer. Thus, it was a point of honor (and an excuse for a little bragging) to arrive at a destination with all your bells.
Hence the phrase, “I’ll be there with bells on.”
(Learned this nugget of cool info at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. You can see an example of the wagon bells on the harness at the far right side of the photo.)