BEFORE YOU TELL the boss to take that job and shove it, you might want to drop by the National Museum of American History for a taste of what U.S. workers had to put up with in the bad old days.

The exhibition entrance is guarded by the iron gates that locked workers in -- or out -- of the Dobson Textile Mills in Philadelphia toward the end of the last century. The next things the visitor sees are samples of the rules imposed on 19th-century factory workers, including workweeks of 60 hours or more and loss of a full day's pay for being a minute late. The Catasauqua Manufacturing Co.'s poster included this warning in 1891:

"Any person or person known to belong to any Secret Association or Open Combination, whose aim is to Control Wages, or stop the Works, or any part of them, shall be promptly and finally discharged."

It was no idle threat. Foremen were given despotic powers and were backed up by armed company goons. "I can hire half the working class to kill the other half," railroad robber baron Jay Gould boasted in 1886.

Curator Peter Liebhold shows some of the steps by which the industrial revolution's factory system reduced many proud individual craftsmen to cowed wage slaves, and the tactics workers have employed to win back some control over wages and working conditions. Some major developments, such as the entry of large numbers of women into factory jobs and the growth of service industries, are somewhat scanted in this once-over-sprightly survey. Divisions between historical developments tend to be rather abrupt because it's a traveling show designed for easy packaging, but the transitions are eased by pithy quotations:

"In the past workers have been first. In the future the system must be first." -- Efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1911.

"If I got a {factory} job, the first thing I would do is join a union." -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936.

"All he has to do is press the button to start the machine and then monitor it. All he has to know is what the machine looks like so he can find it when he comes to work." -- Manager of an automated factory, 1963.

The exhibition closes with an upbeat section showing how some U.S. factories have adopted and adapted the Japanese team system, restoring some of the workers' pride and initiative. But attitudes shaped and hardened under more than a century of the old autocratic system persist into the era of computerized automation. "Teams are just a way to get workers to intimidate each other," one cynic notes. "People wind up doing management work without getting a manager's pay."

WHO'S IN CHARGE?: Workers and Managers in the United States -- Through April 17 at the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution NW. 202/357-2700. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Federal Triangle.

CAPTION: A "work incentive" poster published by the National Foreman's Institute in 1953.