For years, America's First Families have been the focus of national scrutiny, homage, vilification - often the benefactors and sometimes the victims of a massive curiosity in a democracy which has no ordained nobility.

It is a common belief that such scrutinizing is a happening of the last two decades - the result of television bringing life-sized, living-color Kennedys, Johnsons, Nixons, Fords and Carters into our living rooms. Television has indeed magnified the attention, but there has been an inherent interest in First Families as "our royalty" from earliest days.

Abigail Adams was a forceful and witty figure in her own right; Mary Todd Lincoln was criticized by what she called the "vampyre press" for her political meddling, as well as for her extravagant shopping sprees during the Civil War.

No other woman in our country is automatically elevated to internaional prominence through marriage as is the First Lady. No other children are examined in such detail. Tart Alice in her blue gown; Margaret, the opera singer whose critics were stung by her irate father; Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, stamped with the initials of their father; Tricia and Julie; defending to the end their father; Caroline and John-John and pony Macaroni. And now Amy, whose every act - from climbing trees to attending public schools - is a photo opportunity.

The Ford and Carter boys touted their fathers with fervor during the campaign and answered questions on everything from pot to Poland. Betty Ford's reaction to the possibility of Susan Ford having an affair ("I wouldn't be surprised") was a breathless front page tempest for days.

Brothers and sisters of the President get their own share of the limelight. Their antics, at times, can be less than endearing to the elected occupant of the White House.

During Lyndon Johnson's term, his brother Sam Houston, who liked a taste of the grape now and again, became America's Number One Guest at the White House. On more than one occasion he provoked a wincing grimace from brother Lyndon. While being chauffeured into the White House grounds, Sam Houston was fond of raising his two wrists, held close together as if handcuffed, and shouting, "Back to the cell!"

There have been other brothers. We may never have had a Father of Our Country if Lawrence Washington had succeeded in his wish to get brother George into the British Royal Navy. Another presidential brother, Robert Kennedy, became a controversial Cabinet appointment. Still another, F. Donald Nixon, became such a source of White House concern because of his relationship with Howard Hughes associates that Nixon placed a wiretap on his brother's telephone.

With today's insatiable press coverage, we already know - with at least four more years to go - more than we ever wanted to know about Billy Carter's fondness for Pabst Blue Ribbon or Amy's lemonade prices. In one exercise in silliness about things presidential, one network - ignoring international and national events - led its radio news show with Billy Carter's defeat for mayor of Plains, Georgia (population 683).

The ultimate in silliness, though about White House occupants probably belongs to that moment in the '60s when Helen Thomas, now White House bureau manager of United Press International, was directed by an editor to call then press secretary Pierre Salinger in the night to find out if Caroline's hamster was dead.

While much of the concern is peripheral, the First Family in general, and the First Lady, in particular, are perceived as a force in American politics. As Milton Eisenhower, brother of Ike, once summed up: "Anyone close to the President . . . is assumed by the public to be a direct channel to the White House."

The question of the day is what kind of First Lady will Rosalynn Carter be - as outspoken as Betty Ford or as cause-minded as Eleanor Roosevelt?

Like her husband - and unlike previous First Ladies - Rosalynn Carter has made some campaign promises. She has spoken often of the use she can make of ther unoffical White House position. She once spoke of the problems of community day care funds being cut off, forcing women to quit work to care for their children and to go on welfare. "When Jimmy's President and I'm First Lady, I really feel I can do something about that!"

She is for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, for alleviating the plight of senior citizens, for upgrading mental health services. She has spoken often of how she set up 136 mental health centers in Georgia after her husband, the governor, appointed her to head a commission to improve such services.

The Carter "team" plans to do the same thing on a national level. Carter will appoint his wife the active chairperson of a White House Commission on Mental Health.

Her public causes are worthy ones, and with today's emphasis on more diverse roles for women, the public will no doubt in large measure consider them appropriate involvements for a First Lady.

Liz Carpenter, the Johnsons' press secretary, likens Rosalynn Carter to Lady Bird Johnson with the "manner of Malanie and the efficiency of Scarlett. A whole breed of Southern women is like that."

Rosalynn has been called "one tough lady" by Hamilton Jordan, her husband's aide, and "very ambitious" by Miss Lillian, her mother-in-law. She is a top political adviser, who counsels in private.

"She is," her husband has said, "a perfect extension of me."

A very private person, Rosalynn Carter is unlikely to come forth with any Betty Ford style shockers, and presumably will opt for more predictable comments about the Carter family personal life. Accustomed to small town scrutiny, Rosalynn long ago developed caution. "You learn," as she once said, "not to do anything you have to hide."

Nothing seems quite so antiquated today as Jackie Kennedy's major activity of beautifying the White House, although her emphasis on the arts is credited with revitalizing national interest. The Kennedys, playwright Thornton Wilder observed at one Cabinet dinner, were a beacon light to those in the theater and the arts.

With the next First Lady, the beautifying moved outside the confines of the White House to the country in general.

"Mrs. Johnson was the nurseryman's best friend. She had everybody sprucing up, and their business skyrocketed. These things are contagious," said press secretary Carpenter.

"Beautification" may seem on the surface as safe as a cause as supporting motherhood and the American flag. However, Lady Bird met with opposition, Carpenter recalls, from groups like the national billboard lobbyists who tried, and sometimes succedded, in getting the press to laugh at the tree planting and flower spreading. "We never were happy with that name (beautification)," says Carpenter.

Whatever it was called, Lady Bird's action spurred grass roots cleanup programs on waterfronts and highways, in dusty urban triangles of parks. Billboards came down. State legislators found ways to appropriate money for environmental improvements, as well as for asphalt.

The money had to come from elsewhere. There was no official office or budget for her project.

One has to go back 40 years to find a First Lady who ignored such lack of official sanction to do everything but set up her own Oval Office - Eleanor Roosevelt.

Far from finding the White House a prison, Eleanor Roosevelt found it an escape from her unhappy marriage and began to emerge as a national figure in her own right. She garnered her own massive constituency - as well as widespread criticism - as she exhorted women to join and support trade unions, set up consumer groups, enter politics and lead in the New Deal moves for social justice.

She lectured society matrons to aid the starving coal miners. She was accused by newspapers of fostering lawlessness when she said of a man who stole food to feed his hungry family: "I wouldn't blame him."

She encouraged her husband and his Cabinet to tackle the problem of segregation in America. It seems no great act today, but by resigning from the DAR when they refused to let Marian Anderson sing in Constitution Hall in 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt focused worldwide attention on racial discrimination.

It was, of course, not all roses. Many branded her a meddling do-gooder. She championed a federally-planned community in West Virginia and was branded a hopeless dreamer and a communist. The resettlement project failed. Her biographer, Joseph P. Lash, wrote that Eleanor learned from the experience that a "President's wife who undertakes a specific job in the government faces double jeopardy; she is without real authority, yet she is expected to perform miracles. When she dares to assert leadership, it is resented and resisted and if she does not, officials try to anticipate what she wants done."

Eleanor herself wrote and spoke humorously of it all, shocking one reporter who asked what it was like to be a wife of a public official for 30 years. She replied, "It's hell."

To wives at campaign time, she offered tongue-in-cheek advice:

"Always do as little talking as humanly possible. Never be disturbed by anything. Always do what you're told to do as quickly as possible. Remember to lean back in a parade, so that people can see your husband. Don't get too fat to ride three on a seat. Get out of the ways as quickly as you're not needed."

When Eleanor McGovern began speaking out in the 1972 presidential campaign, she was quickly labeled "another Eleanor." She had her critics, but she also found a receptive audience for her brand of campaigning, including her public disagreement with her husband on amnesty (she felt there should be two years of alternate service for deserters).

Eleanor McGovern says today, "I think the First Lady can do so much in molding opinion. Anything she says or does commands press coverage. One listens to her more than anyone else. She has a lot of influence." She wonders why First Ladies have "let that influence go down the drain."

Now that the Ford White House occupancy belongs to history, people are questioning just how much Betty Ford did accomplish. She has both her staunch defenders and some detractors.

Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly, at opposite ends of the feminist spectrum, both found fault with Betty Ford. Schlafley whipped up her anti-ERA crowd by attacking Betty Ford's statements on her daughter as grossly offending "family oriented Americans" by her "deliberate statement tolerating fornication." Steinem said it was discouraging knowing how supportive Betty Ford was of the Equal Rights Admendment and abortion reform, because it pointed up what little influence she had on her husband.

Nonetheless, she was the freest spirit in the White House had known - easily admitting to being divorced, having seen a psychiatrist, having resented raising her four children virtually by herself. Despite, the mountain of hate mail, she stuck to her belief that abortion should be legal, arguing that prohibiting legal abortions would only mean that women would be forced into unsafe back alley abortions.

Republican pollster Bob Teeter found Betty Ford and the whole Ford family substantial assets that translated into votes. "She was very popular and an asset because of the style with which she handled the role more than the substance she conveyed. She was very popular with people we polled who disagreed with her on abortion or, say, her comments on Susan Ford, because they still felt she was the epitome of what a First Lady ought to be - independent, but a wife and mother. Eleanor Roosevelt was different - a political entity unto herself. Betty Ford was able to play many different roles and that left the public with the notion that she was a completely modern female."

Eleanor McGovern said, "I think Rosalynn Carter will reap the benefits of Betty Ford's initiatives."

Most people are taking a wait-and-see attitude about Rosalynn Carter, although some women are wondering if Rosalynn has used her celebrated influence with her husband to lobby for women in the administration.

One problem is finding the money for projects. "We never used Air Force One for anything," said Carpenter. "When we went to the Grand Tetons, for example, we chartered an airplane and charged the press who went along. There is no reason in the world why the sensible use of Air Force planes shouldn't be allowed. No First Lady would misuse it to run up to New York to shop. It's time that appropriations committee grew up on the subject."

Carpenter raises an interesting point. If, as most everyone assumes, the public expects as activist First Lady in a somewhat professional role, will they accept the idea of public money going to her projects? Will there be encouragement to make a such activities more official?

The capacity for accomplishment is great, but an activist First Lady is assured of not only rewards and heady personal power, but criticism and frustration as well.

If done right, it can be one of the toughest unpaid jobs in the world.

Washington area residents began their first working day under emergency cold weather conditions yesterday as the National Weather Service predicted that this month, like January, will be colder than normal.

Schools, offices, public services and private businesses using natural gas were either closed or operating under frigid condition as Washington Gas Light Co. moved to enforce a program of voluntary conservation of the dwindling gas supply.

A spokeswoman for the gas company reported that consumption over the weekend was 8 to 10 per cent below what normally would have been consumed under similar conditions. Asked what a desirable reduction would be, spokeswoman Sheryl Rutledge said, "More than we've been getting."

In Baltimore, the executive director of the state's unemployment agency said that the cold weather was having a "substantial impact" on employment. James Phillips said the state already had a heavy case load of 65,000 to 68,000 claims and he estimated that this week would see an increase of 10,000 unemployed people because of the natural gas shortage.

Although natural gas was scarce, other energy source supplies appeared to be adequate. Leonard Steuart, whose Steuart Petroleum Co. is the principal heating oil supplier to government and industry in the metropolitan area, said that with the help of the Coast Guard, "we've been able to keep the oil flowing."

Steurt said no customers have had problems with supplies, although some customers may not have the reserves that they would like.

A spot check of home-heating oil suppliers indicated that no major problems have been encountered keeping homeowners and apartment building supplied with heating oil.

The federal government moved ahead with contingency plans to put federal workers on a four-day, 40-hour work week or take other necessary measures to reduce natural gas consumption. The Washington area is not expected to be affected much by this since the overwhelming majority of federal employees work in buildings heated by oil and coal, rather than natural gas.

Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. has already informed its customers, including Washington Gas Light, that it is cutting the daily allotment to its customers by 18 per cent for the rest of the winter season to avoid running out of gas.

Washington Gas Light yesterday continued calling large commercial users providing nonessential services and asking them to turn their thermostats down to the lowest possible setting or to the bare minimum needed to keep pipes from freezing.

Other users of natural gas are being asked to lower their thermostats to 65 degrees during the day and to 55 degrees at night.

Washington Gas Light appliance servicemen began making random checks yesterday to see if customers were complying with the voluntary curtailment program. "If we found a customer in noncompliance, we would go to the Public Service Commission and ask permission to turn that customer off. That's what could happen," Rutledge said.

In the District, George R. Rodericks, director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, said key city agencies had been asked to assign staff representatives to the Mayor's Command Center to provide prompt aid to citizens calling in with problems such as lack of heat or water or broken pipes.

From early Sunday morning through late yesterday afternoon, Rodericks reported, the command center had received 241 calls from citizens with such problems. He said the departments of human resources, housing and community development, environmental services recreation, transportation and general services - and the D.C. school systems - were among agencies asked to provide round-the-clock representatives at the command center.

The National Weather Service reported yesterday that the outlook for February, despite the temporary warning trend predicted for today, is for more below normal temperatures - two to three degrees below the average temperature of 37.3 for the metropolitan Washington area.

In the first 25 days of January, according to weather service officials the metropolitan area was 10.6 degrees below the normal average temperature of 35.6.

When the last six days of the month are figured in, January, 1977, is expected to be the fifth coldest month for the metropolitan area since the weather service began recording the temperature. This January was the coldest since 1940, according to weather service officials.

Despite the cold January and predictions of a cold February, Harlan Saylor, deputy director of the weather service; National Meteorological Center, found a silver lining, as it were, among the clouds of gray.

Even if February is colder than normal, Saylor said, February is generally warmer than January, and thus a below normal February could still be warmer than the January the area just endured.

"Things are looking up," Saylor said. "The sun's higher in the sky. Spring is on its way." He said, however, that he saw no assurance of an early spring.

In Prince George's County, 13 schools heated by natural gas were closed yesterday. Two additional schools, not closed yesterday, will be closed today. Four other schools - Largo Senior High, Hyattsville Elementary, Berwyn Heights Elementary and Riverdale Hills Elementary - were closed yesterday becase of broken pipe but were expected to be open today.

Students in 142 propane-gas heated buildings were shifted to regular buildings. The 5,700 students - of a total of 143,000 in the Prince George's system - whose schools have been closed by the natural gas shortage were expected to be relocated in other schools by Wednesday, according to a spokesman.

In Montgomery County, 15 out of 139 Elementary schools were closed because the schools used natural gas. Montgomery school system spokesman Ken Muir said the affected students would be relocated in other schools by Wednesday.

Students from four Fairfax County elementary schools closed because of the gas shortage were to be transferred temporarily to other schools.

Government buildings around town continued to wrestle their heating/cooling systems toward the 65 degrees suggested by President Carter though the complexity of the systems and other considerations make that easier said than done.

"It probably will take four to six weeks to get all the federal buildings regulated to where they want them," said a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which controls the heating in most federal buildings. By then, he conceded, with any luch it will be spring.

Meanwhile, some offices were too warm, while others were arctic.

"I was warmer yesterday when I was outdoors cutting wood for our fireplace with thermal underwear on than I am today in my office," said one U.S. Postal Service employee. "The secret of keeping warm at work, obviously, is to wear to lots of clothing and keep moving."

At Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store, sometimes "it was hard to tell the customers from the clerks" because they all were bundled up equally, grumped hosiery clerk Wanda Lindsay. "And the customers bug us because they're cold. And there is no hot water in the powder room. And I'm afraid I'm going to catch a cold from working here."

And at the Washington Gas Light Co. office employees were as bundled up as the people working in other buildings around Washington. Some, like Greg Morgal wore thermal underwar while others bundled up with sweaters.

"You get used to the cold," Morgan shrugged.

Contributing to this story were Washington Post Staff writers Alice Bonner, B. D. Cole and Kathy Sawyer.