In the days when America was one large frontier, a small group of weavers calling themselves the "Penny Capitalists" pooled their meager (penny) resources and found they could buy more with less.

They created the first consumer cooperative in the United States.

Today hundreds of such buying clubs exists, from the neighborhood Lowell Street Food Co-op to which Second Lady Joan Mondale belongs, to the enterprising Berkeley (Calif.) Co-op which grosses $80 million annually, has 83,000 members, and sells everything from aspiring to sleeping bags.

The principles on which the first Penny Capitalists founded their co-op still guide the modern-day versions: democratic control, limited return on investment, togetherness. And the reason for joining is the same; to beat the rising cost of living.

Lost week the House Rules Committee voted out a bill which would make the financing of co-ops easier and would establish them firmly as a legitimate sector of the free enterprise system.

Known as the National Consumer Cooperative Bank Bill, the legislation already has a strong following - 100 sponsors in the House, 35 in the Senate. The legislation would:

Create a Co-op Bank capitalized for $500 million over five years so that fledging or expanding co-ops won't have to bother the Semall Business Administration or other federal agencies for funding they can't get from commercial banks.

Place an additional $250 million in a Self-Help Development Fund for co-ops which will have a members, or will service, low-income neighborhoods.

The bills is a favorite of the consumer lobby, including Ralph Nader, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. The AFL-CIO is promoting it, too. They say the bill can do for consumer co-ops what the Farm Credit Act did in the 1960s for farmer co-ops - that is, give them a boost.

This is exactly what the bill's critics are afraid of. They say the Farm Credit Act, well-intentioned though it was, had created a family of monster.

Farmer cooperatives today are big business, claiming one-third of the $165 billion agribusiness market. The ten largest farm co-ops fall easily within the top 300 U.S. industrial corporations, which may be good for co-op members, but seriously threatens the nation's corps of small independent farmers.

Arguing against the co-op bill, retailers and financial organizations like to raise the specter of the same thing happening to them. They say the Co-op Bank would provide an unfair subsidy to competitors who already benefit from certain tax priviledges.

"The farm co-ops have to be looked at as the exception." said Roger Hickey in defense of the bill. Hickey is a director of the Exploratory Project for Economic Alternatives, which recently published a 147-page report on cooperatives.

"They have ignored their memberships and turned into centrally controlled businesses. That isn't likely to happen to the consumer co-ops we're talking about encouraging," Hickey said.

Opposition to the bill was stiff enough to force a cut in funding of the proposed bank from $1 billion, as originally written, to $500 million. But that still wasn't sufficient to satisfy the White House, among others.

The Treasury Department asked for only $20 million to be allotted for a pilot study. Assistant Treasury Secretary Roger Altman says the Carter administration will appoint a task force to make a two-year study of the extent to which co-op credit demands are not met by commercial banks.

The radical nature of cooperatives has made conventional banks, insurance companies and other lenders reluctant to extend them credit, says proponents of the act.

"The free market has shown a bias against community-based organizations," said Mitch Rofsky of Nader's Congress Watch. "Banks prefer to invest, in say, chain stores which tend to expand more than co-ops do."

In its early stages, too, a co-op frequently looks like a financial gamble. Usually it begins as a small neighborhood buying club. Shares may be sold to generate capital, but often those funds are insufficient.

A co-op can be organized for any number of purposes, not just to buy groceries, as many people think. In the Washington area alone, for instance, several of the most successful consumer cooperatives provide health care (the Group Health Association), burial services (the Memorial Society of Arlington: and housing.

What distinguished a co-op from other nonprofit organizations or private businesses is that total control is vested in the membership. Each member has one vote, regardless of the number of shares owned. All revenue after expenses is rebated to members based on the percentage of their patronage.

For a group to qualify for co-op assistance under the proposed act, it would have to meet these conditions.

A major argument in favor of the bill is that it will provide stores, health clinics, housing and other services for low-income, inner-city neighborhoods. But critics like to point to the problems experienced by Greenbelt Consumer Services, Inc., the second largest consumer co-op in the nation, which at one time had 22 food stores. Many of those were acquired from Kroger Supermarkets in 1967.

Co-op advocates respond with a list of large and successful cooperatives elsewhere.

Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley.

Coordinated Produce Orders for Maine Co-op, providing cheese and produce at a savings of 25 to 40 per cent for 1,000 member families.

Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound (Seattle), which provides prepaid health care at costs 40 per cent below the national average.

"Co-ops encourage a healthier economic climate for everyone," said Hickey. "The trouble in most cities is not too much competition, but not enough of it."