The Consumer Product Safety Commission opened its doors for business on May 13, 1973, with the lofty mandate to "protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products."

But after a brief honeymoon, the government's smallest agency found itself embroiled in controversy, with critics poking fun at safety rules proposed for bicycles and matchbooks and raising questions about everything from its power to impose regulations to the behavior of the commission chairman.

Now, 10 years later, the agency has largely succeeded in establishing the concept of product safety and the role of government in product safety, according to a consensus of officials familiar with the history of the CPSC. And it has won the support of a great many American consumers, who think that it is doing a better job protecting consumers than any other federal or state group, including Congress, according to a Lou Harris poll earlier this year.

But at the same time the CPSC is on a downhill cycle, in part because of the Reagan administration's emphasis on deregulation and the resulting cutbacks in manpower and funding at the safety agency.

One sign of that decline is the criticism of Chairman Nancy Harvey Steorts and her style of leadership--which is similar to the kind of criticism leveled at S. John Byington when he was chairman from 1976 to 1978. Those years the agency's prestige and activity were at their lowest levels.

"All these tiny incidents--Nancy Harvey Steorts, the current chairman ordering the chauffeur to wear a suit, Byington and his travels--all these images are critical to the agency and its relationships with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget," said David Pittle, a member of the commission for nearly 10 years until his term expired last fall.

The relationship with OMB is important, Pittle said, because of its power to establish the size of the CPSC staff. The role of Congress is important in determining the agency's budget. When either the OMB or Congress is annoyed by the commission's performance, its members or its chairman, then CPSC is less likely to get what it needs to do its job, he said.

A review of the CPSC's first decade shows the agency clearly has had its ups and downs.

The low point appears to have been from 1976 through 1978, when the number of product recalls fell significantly from earlier years and there was limited activity by the commission in initiating civil penalty actions against companies violating the Consumer Product Safety Act.

For example, there were 247 product recalls in 1976; 147 in 1977 and 277 in 1978. That compares with 397 recalls in 1973, the first year the CPSC was in business.

In 1977, the agency initiated for the first time some civil penalty actions. Three cases were filed that year, but only one the following year.

Besides the slow recall and civil penalty activity during that period, the agency's image was clouded by the controversy over Tris-treated children's sleepwear.

Manufacturers turned to Tris to meet a CPSC requirement that the sleepwear be made nonflammable. But Tris later was termed a carcinogen.

"It was a case of a little agency getting into its first big fight with a powerful industry over a complicated issue--and all of a sudden everyone was very scared," said one official familiar with the Tris episode. "Industry was saying that government told it to use Tris but now was saying Tris was bad. Government was saying that it said to make children's sleepwear less flammable but that it had never said to use Tris."

What made the Tris controversy worse, however, was the encounter between Chairman Byington and the congressional committee holding hearings on the issue. One official who followed those events remembers that Byington brought his daughters into the hearing room and said they had been sleeping in Tris sleepwear, apparently to illustrate his point that Tris wasn't as dangerous as had been suggested by some officials. But when Byington offered to have the girls stand up as exhibits, he was gaveled out of order by the committee chairman.

With the election of President Carter, the safety commission's fortunes took a turn for the better. The amount of money the CPSC received grew, breaking the $40 million mark in 1978. Staff size increased, hitting a peak of 978 in 1980. And Susan King, a longtime consumer advocate, was appointed chairman.

Under Carter and King, the CPSC quickly stepped up agency activities, making the 1979-80 period the high point for the safety commission. In 1979 there were 545 product recalls, and in 1980 there were 588 recalls. Civil penalty actions also increased; there were 12 in 1979 and eight in 1980.

King also presided over several major controversies, such as the 1979 recall of asbestos-lined hairdryers. In addition, she helped launch a toxic-chemical program, putting the commission into a new area of research and study that went beyond earlier product safety questions.

Just as the CPSC was preparing for expansion, however, the political climate changed and Ronald Reagan was elected on what was widely perceived as a wave of antiregulatory fever. The White House almost immediately launched an attack on the CPSC, which became a symbol of its campaign to reduce government regulation.

King resigned, and Steorts was named chairman with the clear understanding that voluntary industry standards were preferrable to mandatory standards.

To underscore its feelings about the agency, the Reagan administration sliced the CPSC budget and staff. The amount of money received by the safety panel in fiscal 1982 was $32.1 million--about $10 million less than the year before. Staff fell to 649 in 1982, down 250 from the year before.

Regulatory activity dropped accordingly.

There were 350 product recalls in 1981 and 163 in 1982, compared with the 588 in 1980. The agency initiated seven civil penalty actions in 1981 and five in 1982, compared with eight in 1980.

In addition, the CPSC has felt industry efforts to reduce its power. Business lobbies have tried to persuade Congress to limit the agency's ability to impose civil penalties and to restrict its ability to release consumer complaint information about unsafe products.

Congress is considering both of those measures now as part of the reauthorization process.

Meantime, the CPSC is still reeling from an unfavorable court ruling that struck down its ban on urea formaldehyde foam insulation. Officials announced Friday that they are asking for a rehearing on the grounds that the court made several significant factual and legal errors in its April 7 decision.

What does the future hold for the CPSC after its roller coaster ride of the past 10 years?

Chairman Steorts believes that the commission is in a "strong position" to provide the product safety that consumers want.

Commissioner Sam Zagoria agrees. "The commission is here to stay; the Harris poll shows that we are responding to a felt need. But I think the commission will emphasize more work in chronic hazards in the future, getting new scientific insights. We will do more work with recalls and less with standards."

Commissioner Stu Statler says that there is no question that the agency will survive and that it is now on an even keel.

"Morale could be better, but that is always the case, and the procedures we have in place have helped overcome our leadership difficulties," he said. "With industry, there will always be criticism when their product is caught in the web of our regulation and we can expect to hear wails of complaint.

"But I don't see that as being anything unusual."