Everyone who has ever clipped a boxtop or saved a trading stamp knows that it's hard to resist getting something for nothing.

The something-for-nothing world is having its annual show at the New York Coliseum. It's formally called The 41st Annual New York Premium Show and it's a cornucopia of belt buckles, T-shirts, doormats, pens, calculators, luggage, kites, Frisbees, hats and just about anything else that can be monogrammed or lettered to advertise a company or carry the lucky recipient's name.

Although most of us have brushed against the premium business as consumers, more than 60 percent of the sales volume is for companies which plan to use gifts not to hook us into buying their products, but to reward their dealers or salespeople, according to Susan Frye, associate publisher and editor of Premium/Incentive Business, a monthly magazine.

Estimates of the 1978 premium business vary from a low of $6.8 billion to a high of $12.5 billion.

That would be a lot of T-shirts, but the sprawling show with more than 1,100 exhibitors makes clear that higher-priced items are also in large demand. After all, one part of the premium business is executive gifts-tokens of affection to be exchanged in memory of successful deals or anticipation of future ones.

It all began with Benjamin Talbot Babbitt, according to George Meredith who has been writing about the premium business for 30 years and is executive director of The National Premium Sales Executives.

In the 1850s, Babbitt had a problem on his hands. He had become the first manufacturer to wrap laundry soap in paper, but the housewives weren't buying this new-fangled product. They preferred soap the old way, cut from a long bar by their grocer.

Babbitt turned the soap wrapper into the first premium coupon, rewarding anyone who turned in 25 of them with color lithograph. Wrapped soap sales took off.

For a long time, however, premiums suffered from their association with the kind of hoopla that many Americans found unbecoming. It wasn't until after World War II that tastes changed-and premium campaigns became more inventive-and decorous objections to premiums fell by the wayside.

Now, in an age that enjoys communicating by T-shirts, the potential can make mouths water. "The 1980s will be more productive than 1970s-new inventions, new porducts new wants and needs," said K.R. Baumbusch, president of the Promotion Marketing Association of American, Inc.

Need must be construed broadly at the premium show. Seymour Peterman and Audrey Rubin of Beadoll, Inc. will put anyone's photograph on the face of 22-inch-tall rag doll. President Carter and Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) are among the lucky owners of his clone dolls, Peterman said.

Bill Schwartz, a genial man from Sheboygan, Wis., has five retired woodworkers turning out stumpf fiddles for you and your friends. A stumpf fiddle can turn you into a one-person band. You bounce its rubber-ball bottom on the floor to get BBs rolling around inside its pie tins and can then blow its horn, bang its bells or rap its wooden block as you please. Schwartz was playing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" for interested visitors this morning.

If you want to look musical with out actually playing an instrument, Schwartz will sell you his violin travel bar which would give violin cases a bad name had Chaicago's gangsters not already blackened the reputation of cases by selling them with Tommy guns.

Mel Barron makes replicas of antique bicycles. He spent most of the morning atop a 48-inch front wheeler called a penny farthing. They are slower and more difficult to manage than modern bicycles, but Barron dreams of getting into the last leg of the Tour de France.

"isn't it interesting how many ways there are to make a living," said Ian McDougall, who makes his by selling personalized carpets and rubber mats. "Step into the world of logo mats," is his company's slogan.

Although a visitor to the show can also have a try at flying paper airplanes that return to the hand like boomerangs, get his back massaged by a powerful vibrator whose salesman boasts it will ward off depression and work to keep its owner healthy and happy, or pick up a sample onetime toothbrush equipped with a squirt of toothpaste, most of the show's exhibits are more conventional consumer items.

Manufacturers of television sets, watches, leather goods and all forms of computer games and devices including ones that measure biorhythms are heavily represented.

"There used to be a lot of cheap junk," Meredith said. "Now most of the premiums business is [made up of] quality products."

The bottom line for a company using premiums can be attractive. One example which won a premium showcase award was a four-month effort by Commerce Bankshares, which has 36 banks in Missouri. In an effort to attract new savings dollars, the company offered a series of Corning ware cooking items, some of which were given to customers and others which were "self-liquidating" (a sinister phrase which only means that that the bank sold them at cost).

The campaign brought the banks $104.5 million in new money. The total cost was $226,659-or a cost of 21 cents for every $100 of deposits. CAPTION: Picture, Buyer and seller at the New York Premium Show, by Donald F. Holway for The Washington Post